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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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A Rice University scientist will be working on the team for NASA's latest Mars rover. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Rice University Martian geologist has been chosen by NASA as one of the 13 scientists who will be working on a new Mars rover.

Perseverance, the rover that launched in July and is expected to land on Mars in February. It will be scouting for samples to bring back to study for ancient microbial life, and Kirsten Siebach — an assistant professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — will be among the researchers to work on the project. Her proposal was one of 119 submitted to NASA for funding, according to a Rice press release.

"Everybody selected to be on the team is expected to put some time into general operations as well as accomplishing their own research," she says in the release. "My co-investigators here at Rice and I will do research to understand the origin of the rocks Perseverance observes, and I will also participate in operating the rover."

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Perseverance is headed for Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide area that once hosted a lake and river delta where, according to scientists, microbial life may have existed over 3 billion years ago. Siebach is particularly excited hopefully find fossils existing in atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in water — which usually exists as limestone on Earth.

"There are huge packages of limestone all over Earth, but for some reason it's extremely rare on Mars," she says. "This particular landing site includes one of the few orbital detections of carbonate and it appears to have a couple of different units including carbonates within this lake deposit. The carbonates will be a highlight of we're looking for, but we're interested in basically all types of minerals."

Siebach is familiar with rovers — she was a member of the team for NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012. For this new rover, Siebach knows what to expect.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades."

Siebach and her team — which includes Rice data scientist Yueyang Jiang and mineralogist Gelu Costin — are planning to tap into computational and machine-learning methods to map out minerals and discover evidence for former life on Mars. They will also be using a Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, to analyze the materials.

The return mission isn't expected to return until the early 2030s, so it's a long game for the scientists. However, the samples have the potential to revolutionize what we know about life on Mars with more context than before.

"Occasionally, something hits Mars hard enough to knock a meteorite out, and it lands on Earth," she says in the release. "We have a few of those. But we've never been able to select where a sample came from and to understand its geologic context. So these samples will be revolutionary."

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