I won’t soon forget the feeling in the restaurant that day. It was March 12th, we were out for our teammate’s birthday, but the conversation was anything but celebratory. Someone at the table had just found out the conference trip/Florida vacation they were planning was going to be canceled. Someone else had a sister who was traveling internationally and was coming home to quarantine. No one knew what was going to happen or how much the world was about to change.
There were probably conversations just like this happening all around us, but what made ours different was that we knew it wouldn’t end with just a conversation. The world was about to change, and, as Marketers, we knew we’d have to change with it. We didn’t have the luxury to wait around and see what we would happen; we had planning to do.
With a home office in Central Wisconsin, we were able to watch the response to COVID-19 spread through larger communities first. It gave us time to plan, but not much. Things moved rapidly from not knowing if we’d need to respond at all, to helping our CU team close the lobbies, to sending people to work from home, to finally, the state Safer at Home order being issued.
Yes, these are unprecedented times, and they very much didn’t come with a playbook, but there are some core concepts that have helped us move forward.
We knew we (and our clients) would need to respond somehow, even if it was (in the best-case scenario) to explain why nothing was changing, so we started planning those communications early. Before our emergency response team had scheduled their first meeting, we had graphics for email and social posts ready, an email to the credit union members written, and at least a sketch of a communication plan we could present to the rest of the team.
Developing messages that are clear, concise, but still compassionate is a challenge under the best conditions, and knowing the kind of uncertainty our audience was facing made it doubly so. Fortunately, I was invited to be a part of our emergency response team and know, first hand, the thought and care that went into our pandemic plan.
At the end of the day, you are a human trying to communicate with other humans, and there’s no better way to find the right words than to hear them straight from human decision-makers.
I’ll admit it, I’m a planner, and not knowing how things would change from day to day (hour to hour) was tough. It was clear early on that we’d need regular, reliable communication to our teams and audience if we were going to cover everything that needed to be said.
We agreed on a strategy of building one central website page that we could refer people back to for daily updates. That gave us time every day to make the key decisions about what needed to be said and set a standard for where people could go for information.
Update: After 2 weeks of posting daily, we transitioned to a schedule of weekly updates. We learned that you can find scary news or something else to worry about every day, but it’s not all useful.
Admittedly, we’re an unusual group. We’re still very connected to our founding Credit Union so we were going to talking to those members a lot. We also have credit union, small business, and non-profit clients, all with unique needs.
The first thing we did was develop some simple, free artwork that we could share with our clients as they started to formulate their own communications. That way they wouldn’t lose time looking for the right image or trying to create something from scratch that wouldn’t get noticed.
Next, we devoted a big chunk of time to the credit union and their members. With thousands of our friends and neighbors not being able to walk into a branch almost overnight, we knew that communicating options, keeping them informed, and bringing them the most useful info was key.
Finally, we were able to circle back for more communication with our clients and other contacts with a two-part strategy:
#1 An email to everyone (using our own handy templated artwork) to let them know that we would be working from home and we were there to help.
#2 To continue to monitor the situation and develop the tools and guidance they need. (Like this blog, for example.)
This final tip will make a world of difference. Any time disaster (or even just a minor inconvenience) strikes, be gentle with yourself and your team. You want to know exactly what to say, how to say it, and how to get your message seen, and you should try your absolute best, no doubt, but make room for a strategy that includes revisiting and revising your plan as needed. That way you’ll know you know how and when to address the things you might have missed, weren’t clear, or changed radically with new information.
Our strategy included a dedicated COVID-19 page on the credit union’s website (and I mentioned in Tip #3), regular updates for the team from our Human Resources team, and a collaboration with the credit union’s acting CEO to send regular info and encouragement to the whole team.
With that much room to pivot the message and a clear expectation where that info would be, we were able to gear down out of crisis mode more quickly and get back to doing what we do best: helping people who help people.
About the Author: Suzanne Campbell is the Communicator of Awesomness on the Exclamation Services Marketing team and the self-proclaimed evangelist for Brand Voice. She’s picked up a lot of smart ideas from a lot of amazing people in her more than 20 years of experience and you can frequently hear them on the Awsomology podcast.