COVID communication: a Phlywheel guide

Angie Liu

Angie Liu

Angie explores storytelling and communication through all mediums in her journey as a writer and producer and has previously contributed to CBC Radio’s Metro Morning and blogTO. In addition to her role as the managing editor of Futurithmic, she is also launching a biannual magazine that will examine themes of pop culture and feminism.

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Hands up if you’re feeling absolutely drained by digital media these days. Whether it’s your social media feed or the constant barrage of breaking news, it’s easy to get overwhelmed right now. This is especially the case if you’re stuck at home working and taking care of loved ones, while also trying to stay informed about the world around you. 

Let’s be honest: brands don’t always help in this situation either.

We get it, brands. WE GET IT.

In times of crisis, plans get thrown out the window. And no, I don’t just mean that super rad concert you had tickets to in July that got postponed. I mean your company’s business plans and marketing strategies. Those plans just can’t continue as usual when there’s a global pandemic.

Put that content calendar away for another time

Notice how I didn’t say, “scrap your content calendar entirely.” Brands need to move quickly, yet thoughtfully to pivot their priorities. There’s a time and a place for your content, but unless it’s relevant to the situation we find ourselves today, that time probably isn’t right now. Save those well-planned articles, videos, etc. for another time. I promise that the world can wait. The key to great marketing is getting the right message in front of the right audience at the right moment. This means in-the-moment marketing. Sure, turnaround times and the consistency of your publishing calendar may change, but that’s ok.

Strongly reconsider what your message is, and when your moment should be.

Social listening is key

While any social platform can feel like a dumpster fire at the moment, paying attention to the conversations happening online (and offline) can offer incredible insight into how people are feeling. Putting your ear to the ground will allow you to read the room and provide the kind of value that people are looking for right now, and it can come in all sorts of forms.

Got scheduled social posts lined up? Unschedule them. We know how badly that can go if left unchecked. Now is the time to adapt, listen, come up with a new plan, and make adjustments as necessary each week (or day, given how quickly things change). The last thing you want is for a scheduled, pre-crisis post to rear its ugly head and make you look insensitive. 

I’ll use my own experience as an example. As the managing editor for our client’s brand publication, I felt uneasy about our upcoming content as COVID-19 began to weigh heavily on me. It was all I could think about, and it was causing me significant stress and anxiety. I couldn’t focus because all I was thinking about as I read these articles was, “Who cares?” 

Very soon after, our office began to work from home, and it was clear to all of us (and our client) that everyone else felt the same way. Who cares about anything other than our health, safety, and our society at the moment? This is exactly how your audience is likely feeling, too.

Turning it around 

After some social listening, we saw the conversations happening online and knew that anything we were to promote or release in the coming weeks would fall on deaf ears. We knew that our ‘new normal’ content would have to relate to:

  1. How to help people and organizations cope with the pandemic, or:
  2. Helpful distractions.

We shelved our planned social posts and decided that we would focus on posting links to useful resources. Our focus was to promote things like online courses, data maps, extensive explainers, and tips for remote working. We also wanted articles to keep our readers informed and thinking about the future (i.e., articles on healthcare, remote learning, and how technology can help track and manage a pandemic).

Since being forced to close, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is releasing a series called #Rijksmusuemfromhome. It features behind-the-scenes looks at the works of art within the building, all from the safety of your home.

In a global crisis, your intentions, your words, and your actions are more important than ever. They’ll demonstrate your company values and priorities. Do you want to be known as the company that continued to hawk itself to people during a pandemic? Probably not. Do you want to be remembered for doing your part to help your audience, your staff, and your community during this time of uncertainty? I would hope so!

Here are my tips for turning around your social messaging during COVID-19:

  1. Stay updated – The situation is evolving daily, so it’s essential to keep up with the news on an industry level and a policy level. For example, if your city has shut down public parks, you probably don’t want to advertise outdoor group activities to your audience, duh. 
  2. Watch your language – Are your intentions being conveyed correctly? Could someone interpret your message as being dismissive or insensitive in the current situation? Make sure your organization is clear on what is and is not appropriate.
  3. Think about how priorities have changed for your customer – Your business objectives will change because your customers’ values have changed. Think about how best to support them. As a business, can you donate money to causes? Can you offer discounts or deals for your customers in need? Can you create resources like infographics or charts to explain complicated COVID-19-related information for your audience? 

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom – Not everything you post needs to have “COVID-19” in it, but it should benefit your audience. For example, lifestyle brands may post more recipes for home cooking, or ideas for a family game night. Tech companies should focus on bringing people together digitally.

The only constant thing is change

While I sit here writing best-practice marketing advice, I should also mention that I am by no means an expert on crisis management. Very few people could have predicted these events, and we’re all still learning as we go. When I’m not sure, I ask my team to help read and edit my copy: “Does this sound good? Does this sound insincere? Help me!” And I learn by example. We’ve already seen some brands butcher their messaging, and we’ve seen brands stand out as leaders.

Oh, and for the love of God, do not use this pandemic as a sales opportunity:

Seriously, don’t.

In a few weeks, maybe the conversations online will change. Perhaps a massive development will take place. Maybe people will be more receptive to non-COVID content. Keep listening and use your judgment to decide when it will be appropriate to return to your regularly scheduled programming. 

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