Guest column

Houston entrepreneur shares communication tips for today's coronavirus environment

When faced with a crisis, it's essential to deliver clear, authentic messages to your target audiences. Getty Images

The reality for business owners is that everything you say matters; your words are reverberated and felt throughout the company and all of your stakeholders.

During times of crisis, your voice is amplified to the max, and people listen to every word you have to say, which is why — if not completely thought-through — your voice can breed misinformation, confusion and stress. As we face the increasing uncertainty in our community due to the spread of COVID-19, it's critical for business owners to say the right things, to the right people, that will inform and motivate, and use their presence and organization to be leaders within the community.

Practicing what we preach, we understand that as communication experts, it is our mission and responsibility during this time to help our local business community. We are putting our money where our mouth is and for the last week have been offering free communication and marketing consultation to any business in need.

So, what is top of mind to our team right now, as we work with these businesses? Besides following recommendations from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to curb the virus's spread, companies should actively be communicating to all stakeholders about the impact COVID-19 is having or could have on operations. Here are a few dos and don'ts to get you started.

Offer valuable tips to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, but we all know to wash our hands by now.

You have to make sure that you are communicating valuable information with internal and external stakeholders — but through your own authentic voice. Offer suggestions on how to "social distance" or use your service/product remotely.

Internal stakeholders need to understand what's hard facts, what's soft facts (opinions and feelings) and what's just hearsay. They need to understand clear expectations when working from home and employees need to feel safe, accommodated and heard. Externally, be sensitive to what your customers and the community at large are going through and update your business practices and communications accordingly.

Communication with customers can be in an email, but you can also connect through text, through an online chat, via infographics or memes on social media, or an "on-brand" (and possibly witty!) reminder on what social distance may mean.

Don't stay silent — even if you don't know everything.

Don't let others control your company's narrative. As humans, we naturally fill in gaps in communication to understand what's going on around us. Rather than letting people assume information about your business, get in front of the conversation and share real-time updates as you adjust business-as-usual.

Consider alternative ways to reach external audiences and vice versa.

What happens if the majority of your customer acquisition model is door-to-door and no one wants to open the door to a stranger, or you have a centralized call center to handle customer service complaints, but these employees are now all working from home? Now is the time to reconsider how you'll engage with your audiences and win customers.

We recommend a significant shift to digital acquisition as people are going to be spending more and more time online in the coming weeks from home and there is a ripe opportunity to stay top of mind through targeted display campaigns and send interested customers to your website.

Create a proactive plan for shut downs.

Coronavirus is still an emerging, rapidly evolving situation and we have no idea what could happen but create contingency plans and have a crisis comms plan ready to deploy. Think through possible scenarios (closures, supply limitations, employee diagnosis, etc.) and have social media posts, email blasts and internal messaging ready to deploy should worst case scenario occur.

What your business says is just as important as who says it.

A spokesperson is your organization's mouthpiece. Choosing the right person is just as important as saying the right thing. Without the right person to speak on behalf of your organization, your message could be lost — or worse, they choke.

Your spokesperson should be credible, empathetic and authoritative.


Bottom line: When faced with a crisis, it's essential to deliver clear, authentic messages to your target audiences, stay true to your brand voice and position yourself as a leader – both internally and externally. Your company will thank you later.

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Allie Danziger is the founder and president of Houston-based Integrate Agency, which focuses on digital marketing and public relations.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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