When we look back on the pandemic, there are certain to be a wide range of things we remember as standing out from all the chaos and confusion. One of those has to be the absolute flood of messages that we received from every company ON THE PLANET about the coronavirus. From resorts and gyms to our dry cleaners and babysitters, everyone got in on the game. And, in all transparency, we produced our own share of these missives for clients as well.
Because we are communicators, and therefore logophiles at heart, we collected a diverse set of 150 messages for an analysis around structure, language and approach. This included messages from large companies – like Winn Dixie, USAA and J.P. Morgan – as well as small companies, like schools, local retailers and small nonprofits. Organizational messages reviewed also included those from hospitality, finance, professional services, retailers, education, and more
We were curious to know if everyone was indeed using the exact same language (pretty much!) and the identical encouragement to visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (yep, that too).
While we are grateful that these messages have finally stopped flooding our inbox, we are preparing ourselves for the next wave of messages sure to come once the pandemic is behind us. We’re getting ready to read all about having been “stronger together,” companies that “managed through the uncertainty” and how we’re returning to a “new normal.”
Before we get to that point, however, let’s look at a COVID-19 message breakdown of what was said, who said it and how it was said across 150 different organizations.
THE INFORMATION SOURCE
As the pandemic emerged, there was a great global scramble for reliable information. Yet, surprisingly, almost half the communication had no reference to a source of information about COVID-19 included in the message.
When a source of information was referenced it was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which dominated as the primary source (included in 48% of the communications). This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who sent or received even a handful of communication. Interestingly, while the CDC was pervasive as an information source in corporate communications, it was not the primary source of information for broadcast news outlets, who relied much more heavily on the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease in the form of Dr. Fauci. Largely, this is because of Dr.Fauci’s visible role in White House coronavirus briefings and his general effectiveness as a knowledgeable and reliable spokesperson.
THE LANGUAGE USED
If it seemed like all communicators were working from the same dictionary when messaging around the coronavirus, there is a reason for that. Every communication contained the words “safety” or “wellbeing”, which isn’t a surprise. But the words “change,” “priority,” “loyalty” and “support,” were also present in more than one-third of the messages. The words “evolving,” “uncertain,” “reassure,” and “commitment” additionally appeared in more than 20 percent of the messages. “Unprecedented” and “navigating” were also popular choices.
The suggestion is that communicators referenced other company messages when drafting their own, which makes sense. It also suggests that we are moving to an increasingly homogenous form of “corporate speak” for crisis management, not attempting to differentiate or break through in the way that communicators try to do for general marketing efforts.
Happily for everyone, references to the “new normal” and “new reality” only showed up in three percent of the documents reviewed. But we’ll be on the look-out for them in the wave of post-pandemic communication to come.
Beyond specific words, there was also commonality in general references made in COVID-19 communications. More than 100 messages referenced specific actions taken by an organization in response to the pandemic, while 88 included mention of staying healthy and over 65 included reference to future updates, ongoing monitoring and cleaning or sanitation.
More than half of the messages were formatted in an email template with a logo. And, while 28 included an electronic signature from an individual, only three included that person’s photograph.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
OVERT SELLING: Sales-oriented call to actions were present in a number of communications and almost universally fell flat with messages like, “Spots are filling up fast, and are available on a first-come, first-scheduled basis” and “Conditions are changing quickly, and you need to act now.”
UNCLEAR INTENT: Several communications were distributed by email with subject lines that made no reference to the content being about COVID-19. Opening the email expecting one message and then reading information about the pandemic felt uncomfortable and thoughtless to our analysts.
LACK OF COMPASSION: Startlingly, a number of companies shared messages without any expression of compassion, concern, hope or encouragement. Even more surprising, some of the worst offenders were in one of the hardest-hit industries, the cruise lines.
WHAT DID WORK
VIDEO: Only a handful of messages incorporated video and those that used it to convey information from a CEO or other senior leader did so effectively, giving their communication an additional level of engagement and personalization.
OPTIMISM: While the subject of the messages was universally serious, our analysts found that those expressing optimism – “We’re optimistic that we can as a business survive this” – and solidarity – “We know this is hard for everyone but we’ll get through this together.” – were among the most effective.
RELATABILITY: While most messages struck a fairly corporate tone, there were those that used more personal, relatable language to good effect. For example, one message opened with “Waking up this morning in my L.A. home with my office closed and kids at home, I was admittedly feeling pretty anxious.” Not a typical message from a CEO, but effective in breaking through the clutter.
SUPPORT FOR OTHERS: Many, many messages asked for support beyond that for the organization sending the message, including consideration for teachers, front-line healthcare workers, restaurant workers, and small business owners. These messages came across as compassionate, with consideration given to the welfare of the greater community.
COVID COMMUNICATION MAD LIBS
Now it’s your turn. Fill in the blanks for handy COVID-19 messaging that worked for almost everyone.
Now that we’re focusing on the return-to-work process, communications is more important than ever. There is no steady state. Companies will emerge in a better or worse position, with greater or lesser trust. In what comes next, it is critical to communicate well around policy changes, guarantees and expectations, and what the future holds even when the answer isn’t always definitive. One thing we hope everyone can get behind, let’s agree to just leave the phrase “the new normal” in the past.