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Houston expert shares 5 tips for brand messaging during a pandemic

It's important to rethink your startup's messaging during the time of the coronavirus. Getty Images

Brand messaging in a world cowed by a worldwide pandemic poses a set of challenges none of us has ever faced.

The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey provides few guideposts to professional communicators as that tragedy unfolded over several terrible days in August 2017 mostly affecting Southeast Texas. While Harvey was unprecedented in the sheer volume of its onslaught, the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in its global scale and seeming endlessness.

In times of crisis, our natural impulse is to lend a helping hand. With the highly contagious coronavirus spreading and social distancing guidelines in place, lending a literal helping hand is dangerous. In the days and weeks following Hurricane Harvey, Houston's civic leaders, its citizens, and its business community rallied to meet the challenge with positivity, hard work, and good humor. The circumstances today are fundamentally different, and the path forward is uncertain and uncharted.

Attempts to develop a messaging strategy in the face of COVID-19 can be paralyzing.

How do we maintain meaningful connections with our customers and communities when we're being forced apart? How do we keep our businesses vital and active when economic and public health interests are in direct conflict? How do we create normalcy and positivity in the middle of so much suffering? How do we keep our sense of humor and humanity when we need it most?

We're in this for the long haul. Here are a few tips to guide your messaging strategies so your content can do some good.

Fine tune your tone

Tone is everything in a crisis. People are frightened for their personal and economic wellbeing. Messaging under these circumstances is risky, but with a thoughtful approach, you can make a positive impact. Unless you work for a news, civic, or healthcare organization, it's unlikely anyone is looking to you to guide them through the pandemic. If that's your messaging, it'll be jarring and confusing.

Focus on providing distraction, comfort, support, and some sense of normalcy. That doesn't mean your messaging should ignore the realities of the situation, which runs the risk of appearing tone-deaf, opportunistic, or ignorant. We're all affected. Keep that top of mind, acknowledge what's happening in the world, and your messaging tone shouldn't cause you too many problems.

Feed the beast

You may have seen that clip of Welsh seniors playing a life-size version of Hungry, Hungry Hippos on NBC's Today Show. If you haven't, the smile is worth the minute and thirteen seconds of your life. Now, think of social media as the game board, your content as the marbles, and everyone else is a hungry, hungry hippo, except the hippos are hungry day and night and the game will never end.

People are lonely and bored, and instead of counting the dimples in their ceiling plaster, they're on the Internet sharing Tiger King memes. They're looking for connection and a sense of shared community. You have the opportunity to brighten their day. You alone cannot generate enough engaging content to keep the hippos full for long, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Isolation is unhealthy.

Help people keep their marbles by giving them something fun, inspiring or educational to share and experience with others while staying on brand.

Deliver the goods

Thanks to social media, home delivery has taken on new meaning. Bring your brand directly into peoples' homes and create an interactive experience that disrupts the monotony of the "stay at home" order. Miss fajitas? Of course you do. Original Ninfa's on Navigation recently launched a series of YouTube videos called "Ninfa's with your Niños," and they're delightful. The content is on brand, encourages activity, and implicitly acknowledges folks are trapped at home with their kids (note: these were clearly produced before social distancing started). Watching Chef Alex Padilla demonstrate how to make queso flameado in your own kitchen will be the best single minute of your month. That's how to home deliver a brand.

Know your role

If your organization is in a position to help your community, do it in a way that makes sense for your brand, creates a meaningful impact for those suffering, and is simple to communicate. Flattening the curve is a team effort. Big or small, national or local, organizations can do their part to help the effort. If it's a logical extension of what you do normally, it will not look opportunistic because it's not opportunistic. It's a reasonable and human thing to do in the face of tragedy.

For example, local fashion designer Chloe Dao is making washable face masks for healthcare workers and their families. The Ford Motor Company is converting a plant in Michigan to build ventilators. And Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander is donating his paychecks to COVID-19 relief organizations because he's rich and having a filthy curveball isn't helpful right now. Take what you already do and use it to help people.

Your specific contribution is needed. Figure out what that is and encourage everyone else to get on board.

Don't stick out your neck (or anyone else's)

This should go without saying: safety is the starting point for every single messaging decision you make. Whether implicit or explicit, all of your messaging, all of your community investment, and all of your community initiatives must put the safety of your employees, your customers, and your neighbors first.

No one will question why the video message you created in selfie mode is a little rough and wobbly. No reasonable person will question you for wearing a mask or gloves or waving at them from a distance. Being involved carries an unusual amount of personal risk. All of your activities and content creation should factor in the hard realities of a viral pandemic.

Project safety in your words and your actions. Slickly produced content can take a back seat for now. Be safe out there.

In the face of this crisis, every effort to create connection helps. Be careful with your words, thoughtful with your generosity, and positive with your message. And if all else fails, share that video of old people playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos.

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Jeremy C. Little is the head of account services for CKP, a Houston-based marketing and public relations group.

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Building Houston

 
 

Houston can expect the new vaccine in the next week. WPA Pool / Getty Images

Texas can expect to receive the first 200,000 doses of the coveted Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week. The company announced that it has started the rollout process on March 1 — after the FDA approved its Emergency Use Authorization.

The Center for Disease Control gave the developer, Janssen Pharmaceutical, the final greenlight Sunday, February 28.

What does that mean for Houston? Mayor Sylvester Turner said the Houston Health Department is also anticipated to be on the list to receive Johnson & Johnson doses within the next seven days.

"That will be a game changer," Turner said at an event on February 28 afternoon. "There will be more vaccines available in a shorter period of time. We anticipate that we will probably get a shipment in sometime this week that will add to the Pfizer [doses] that we are using at NRG."

Turner said other clinics with the Houston Health Department have been administering the Moderna vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine does have noticeable differences from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, experts said.

The MRNA vaccines each require two shots which are usually delivered weeks apart and stored in freezers. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single shot that can be stored in a refrigerator for up to three months at 35 to 46 degrees.

However, Johnson & Johnson does not have as much of the COVID-19 vaccine produced as originally anticipated. ABC13 confirmed 3.9 million doses will be shipped out across the country this week. Johnson & Johnson announced roughly an additional 16 million doses by the end of the month.

"In the next few weeks, it won't have much of any impact because they only have at least three or four million doses available, and that's disappointing news," says Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. "In the longer term, over the next few months, it's really important because we need a greater vaccine supply. We are not going to get there with the two MRNA vaccines. We need probably up to five different vaccines in order to vaccinate the American people."

Recently, there has been a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases reported statewide. As of Sunday, about 5,700 Texans are in the hospital due to COVID-19, which is half the number of hospitalization in the beginning of the month.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Troisi says it's important for people to not let their guard down and that people should get tested if they have been in a high-exposure situation, or if they have been in direct contact with someone who has tested positive.

"Get vaccinated, don't worry about what vaccine it is," Dr. Troisi notes. "It's true that unfortunately there are not as many doses right now of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as we have hoped, but the company is saying that by the end of June, they will have a 100 million doses, and that's into 100 million people because you don't need two doses.

"So, we expect to have 600 million doses of the other two vaccines, that's 300 million people," she continues. "That should be enough for everyone who wants the vaccine to be able to get it. With one caveat and that is as of right now we do not have a vaccine for children under age 16. Those trials are going on, hopefully as we go throughout the year there will be a vaccine licensed to 12 year-olds and then maybe going down to 8 years or older."

For more details on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout, visit the FDA's website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap. For more on this story, visit our news partner ABC13.

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