Another ping, another email, another statement about COVID-19. I’ve been writing a considerable amount of these statements over the last couple of weeks, as you can imagine. I’ve written position papers, crisis strategies and serious incident responses for all kinds or organisations over the last quarter century but this has led me into new territory.
So, what should your coronavirus/COVID-19 statement say and how do you write one?
1. Think about the audience.
As with any communication it’s essential to focus on who you’re talking to and think about what their primary concerns might be. What’s the most important issue for them? Even the quickest glance at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will tell you that for most people their physical health – and that of their loved ones comes first. They’ll also be concerned about their jobs and their income. So, you need to come to this first. I’ve seen too many coronavirus/COVID-19 statements that start by putting the whole situation into some sort of international context or open by wasting time with pointless platitudes. If you could see someone was about to be hit by a car racing towards them from behind, you’d hardly start your warning to them to get out of the way with a description of the principles of road safety, would you? So, get to the point quickly.
Use language that is appropriate to them. Check that not only will they understand it but they’ll be familiar with it. I always say that it’s good to use language that people will understand but it’s better to use language they use. There might be words and phrases at they’re familiar with. This reassures them and builds empathy.
I’ve just had an email from a travel company beginning “Dear Valued Customer.” Who on earth says that? The fact that the message then went on to tell me in cold, rather pompous language that this particular “Customercare” email address is not being monitored was hardly very encouraging.
2. Express concern.
In any crisis or difficult situation, it’s essential that you come across as caring and considerate – even if it’s not your fault. I’m sure you would be anyway but make sure that early in your communication you sound sympathetic to your audience. In this case it might be about their physical and psychological wellbeing as well as that of their families. You might also want to say that you appreciate their worries around finances and job security.
3. Include a call to action.
You’ve got my attention – now, what do you want me to do? Actionable advice, top tips, three ways to protect yourself, five things you can do now (use odd, not even, numbers – it sounds punchier for some reason) or take action now will all work. If there are helplines, email addresses or links make sure that these are clearly shown.
4. Reassure them.
There’s been much discussion about whether the government has been slow in its response to COVID-19 and whether it should have said more earlier. One official that I was speaking to explained that they didn’t want to panic people. Warning people while also offering reassurance and perspective is essential. You might want to talk about actively seeking expert advice. You could also explain that you’re following official guidelines and complying with all regulations. If you can add that you’re going over and above what’s required of you it sounds even more reassuring.
5. Be transparent.
Again, the government has been criticised for not telling all that it knows but it might have reasons for this. For organisations, though, being as transparent as possible is essential. I always tell people during crisis communications courses to “Tell it all, tell it quickly and tell it truthfully.” The first requirement can be pretty frightening, and many organisations hold back information that seems unhelpful. But all too often these facts come to light and the public can very often sense when someone is not being completely and open and straight with them. This means, perhaps paradoxically, that if you don’t know something then just explain that this is the case. You could say something along the lines of “This is a fast moving situation but we’re monitoring it closely and taking action as soon as we can,” or “This is unprecedented and so there’s no tried and trusted rule book here but we’re working hard to keep up to speed with developments.” You can also be clear that you’re not going to speculate. Journalists with screens to fill love this but “What if’s?” are always risky. Stick to the facts.
6. Keep your language active.
“We’re waiting to hear,” or “We’ll let you know if we get some new information,” simply won’t cut it during crises or when people are anxiously looking to you for support, information and guidance. Make it clear that you’re taking action, that you’re something, rather than just waiting.
7. Update regularly.
I mentioned the importance of being transparent and this is connected. If you’re waiting on a train that’s not moving or you’re gazing at a screen in an airport at the word “DELAYED” next to your flight there’s nothing more frustrating than not knowing when you’ll get some information, let alone when you might get to your destination. Even if there’s nothing to say other than the fact that we’re continuing to take action, we’re working closely with the authorities or we’re communicating with everyone involved, at least you’re saying something. You’re visible, open and active.
This is a worrying, unprecedented and fast-moving situation. That’s why clear, effective communication with your audiences is more important than ever.
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