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‘People Will Remember it’ – Do You Have a Crisis Communication Plan?

I’ve heard from many different entities during the COVID-19 crisis—theaters I’ve had subscriptions with, sports teams I order from, publications like The Washington Post and The New Yorker. (I’m not a big Amazon person, although I guess Mr. Bezos does own the Post.) And you really do get a sense of who they are from their outreach.
When I emailed The Washington Ballet about my subscription—what remained this season and renewing the next—Wil called me about two seconds later to discuss it. (Another good lesson—I was impressed!) He was honest and straightforward, and it really made me feel good about continuing my subscription. When I later reminded him that he forgot my free Nutcracker tickets, he was so apologetic that I then felt bad.
Another division here held a webinar last week on Crisis Communications, and a colleague at another association, Theresa Witham, managing editor/publisher at CUES, did a great job covering it for us. The quotes I use are from her reporting. Here are some of the key takeaways from the webinar:
Clear messaging. “For a lot of people, thinking on your feet was really important after March. It still is,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, founder of SteppingStone, LLC. “The people who did well, who moved quickly, had done well around fast decision making. They had clear decision streams and were able to put out information quickly.”
Authenticity. As the crisis continues, “being honest and authentic still counts a lot,” she said.
Empathy. Almost all of us have had to cancel or postpone a meeting—or move it to virtual like SIPA 2020 (early-bird registration ends this week!). So people can identify with that. “People notice when you acknowledge those losses” and disappointments in your communications, Neiberger-Miller said. It also allows you to transfer your enthusiasm to the new event.
Be up front. Many of the theaters here in Washington, D.C. still don’t know when they will be able to go on. So maybe their initial emails were a bit too optimistic and they’ve had to walk them back. That’s okay, said Neiberger-Miller. “I think you just explain what happened. Most people are reasonable.”
Build and trust your community. Theaters are like publishers in that both have built loyal communities. This is a time to honor that community with updates, empathetic messages and, maybe foremost, value. For theaters, that may mean opening up the archives to some past productions on video. The National Theatre in London has done incredibly well with donations from doing this.
It’s about them. “People will remember it,” if you are doing things to help them get through, she said.
Make a list of anything that could go wrong. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a plan for potential problems before they become reality, Neiberger-Miller said.
In case of… If your company has events and/or property, have a plan for different kinds of crises involving buildings and venues, such as a fire, natural disaster, gas leak or active shooter. Also think about attendee health emergency, speaker cancellation, speaker controversy and, of course, pandemic.
Remember to include people behaving badly in your planning. What would your company do if your event has a Me Too crisis involving a speaker, member or employee?
Create communication templates. Neiberger-Miller advises having templates for press releases and statements built out for various scenarios. In an earlier webinar we had, communications experts said they had one person responsible for templates throughout the company so messages would be consistent.  
Be ready. “You never know what your next crisis will be but if you have some of those pieces in place, it will be easier for you,” she said. “…Even if you didn’t have a plan for this exact scenario, if you already had a [crisis communication] plan in place it helped you respond.”
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Actionable Marketing and Sales Steps From a Crisis Webinar

I just listened to an excellent webinar from a company called MCI USA titled “COVID-19: Communicate Empathically, Plan Strategically,” with Brittany Shoul (pictured right) speaking from a sales and partnerships viewpoint, and Rachel Dillion (far left) on member services.
It was fairly basic but in a good way—meaning that they clearly laid out positive strategies for working with your audiences at this special time. Here are some key takeaways.
Focus on the gap methodology. The plans that we all put in place two weeks ago aren’t the plans today. And who knows what the future will bring. Focus on the middle. Our key stakeholders are experiencing a level of uncertainty that we’re all experiencing. There’s a place now between the current state (unarguably not great) and the future state. Make the most of the time now.
Have conversations with your customers. Shoul and Dillon said that the natural inclination at this time might be to withdraw, but the opposite should be true. It’s the time for strategic conversations and important questions. Pick up the phone. (It’s interesting that those of us who are working from home for the first time are getting the same advice—talk to people on the phone.) “How are you?” should be the lead question. It’s a great time to be human and lead with empathy and understanding. “What do you need the most help with?” “What are your pain points?”
Empower your staff to have these same conversations and then share. Anecdotal information from the conversations/emails your staff is having with your audience should be shared. Everyone should be empowered to ask these questions. A short personal email is fine if you don’t want to call and then listening for what comes next from them (after “how are you”).
Learn from your audience. Sales teams are dealing with cancelled events. Look for ways to help them communicate that message. And how do we do that? Email or pick up the phone. Everyone is experiencing the same uncertainties and fears. We need to learn more about what our audience needs.
Get back to your core products. We’re using that information to inform our current state but also to plan what we’re doing in the future. We want to get back to the products we create and deliver for our members and subscribers. We must ensure that members are engaged everywhere they can be. Do you know the lifecycles of your products, conferences, publications and e-learning platforms? What do you have now that you can tune or adjust to solve your audience’s current challenges?
Look at something new. Virtual events may be new to you. But you’re in information gathering mode to get a stronger sense of what is needed. Take those case-to-case cancellations and pivot to something new.
Tailor information that is out there to your industry. What can we do now to positively impact the people we serve? The CDC is pushing out a ton of information right now. How can you take that information and tailor to your industry?
Create content bundles for people in your niche working from home. People may have more time now so create courses that you haven’t been able to get to in the past. Social media might be something that people could get better at now and use. Chipotle is hosting Zoom open-line lunch sessions. Any organization can do that. Also special event streaming is becoming huge—live musicians. If you had an event planned with a high-level keynote in your niche, look at a live-streaming opportunity.
Explore your archives. It’s a great time to dig into your files. What do you have that can be recycled and refreshed—maybe a white paper that approached crisis communications. People are also craving community now. How can you create that online dialogue? Also podcasts are experiencing incredible upticks now. Anchor, which is owned by Spotify, just launched a feature making it easy to record with friends.
Find new opportunities. Buyers and sellers still want to be brought together. Sponsors were looking forward to the face-to-face opportunities at your events, Now they’re looking for new opportunities. How can you use your website and the advertising opportunities there to introduce new concepts perhaps, maybe video? The needs of your members are changing. Can you meet them?
Make something free. Good will goes a long way right now. Organizations are starting to open products for free and gather information that way. The silver lining of this crisis is that you’re lengthening your planning cycle for the next event. That makes this a great time to plan and design something different. What does your audience want and need? Take advantage of this big time gap to recreate what you’re doing. Sometimes when we do something every year we have a tendency to just recycle what we do. This gives us a chance to reintroduce new ideas.
Make tough decisions. The pain of the moment can create a time to change things that have been hard to change in the past. You have products that are declining. Usually we ignore that. Now is the time that critical decisions can be made, We don’t know what the new normal will be. It could be very different. If that’s the case you have to reallocate new resources. That means shifting resources away from events. Retraining those talents (people) to manage digital products as well. It’s all about being flexible now, and it kind of forces your hand to be critical as well. It’s time to make those hard decisions and maybe cut those low-performing products.
Do a risk assessment on your product bucket. Use that to inform future products. A reallocation of resources is something real that has to happen.
Talk to your audience (repeated). Customers and members will remember these interactions. Get comfortable listening.
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Keep Emails Short, Clear and Accessible During Crisis Times

In the novel Emma by Jane Austen—and in the film that’s out now—Harriet Smith shows Emma a letter of proposal from Mr. Martin, a farmer. Not realizing at first that Mr. Knightley helped him with the letter, Emma is quite “surprized” by the strength and style it commands.
“There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense…” (In the movie, we even see how short and neat the letter is.)
I bring this up because in an article on CNN last week, Todd Rogers, a professor of public policy at Harvard University and chief scientist at EveryDay Labs, wrote that there is a problem with the way organizations, schools and airlines communicate in crisis times like this. Above all, they write too long.
“…if there’s one lesson all the coronavirus email writers should take, it’s this: Messages should be as easy to understand as possible. This is difficult in normal times—and is no doubt much more so with facts on the ground changing as rapidly as they are.
“…people have limited attention,” Rogers went on. “This means our attention can be depleted and derailed, and that we cannot focus on several things at once—even though we think we can. Given this, when people are faced with a long, convoluted message, the chances are slim that they will read it, understand it and remember it.
Here are some tips on writing the most effective emails at moments of great importance, the first four from Rogers and the last four from the Business2Community site:
Write in the most accessible way possible. “Use the Flesch-Kincaid readability test (built into Microsoft Word and Google Docs) to test the reading-level complexity of your writing.”
Use as few words as possible. “Shorter messages are more likely to be read (see the long email in your inbox from three months ago that you still have not read).” It was Mark Twain who said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Writing a good short letter is not easy but well worth the effort.
Eliminate gratuitous borders and images. “These can often distract from the message you are trying to send.”
Use a clear structure. “People skim, so help them. As opposed to a multi-paragraph email written in normal prose, consider categorizing information under headings like, ‘What we want you to know’ (or just ‘KNOW’) and ‘what we would like you to do’ (or, concisely, ‘DO’).” Consider bullets.
Don’t joke about the situation. This seems rather obvious but there could be a previous strand that was comfortably funny in the past. Everyone’s lives are so disrupted now that the same strand might come across poorly. Play it safe. Also pause possibly insensitive marketing campaigns—like contests or humorous content.
Don’t take advantage of the situation. “If your product or service is in high demand due to the crisis, don’t raise your prices. While this is a smart practice in normal times due to the law of supply and demand, it’s insensitive and unethical during times of crisis.”
Monitor the crisis and adjust emails appropriately. “Communicate regularly with your audience throughout the crisis. Don’t be afraid to change how you’re addressing or handling the crisis and update your audience with new information.”
Try to help. “Businesses that take action to help those affected by the crisis will connect with their audience on a deeper level. People want to do business with brands who genuinely care.” Maybe you can help set up a relief fund or create educational content that will help your audience navigate or understand the crisis.