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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

 
 

Meet Paul Cherukuri — the new face of innovation at Rice University. Photo via Rice.edu

Rice University has created a new position to be a steward of innovation on campus — and the "Ivy League of the South" has selected the official to take on the job.

Rice University has named Paul Cherukuri, the executive director of the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering, the inaugural vice president for innovation. In his role, Cherukuri will "lead Rice’s technology and commercialization infrastructure to translate breakthrough discoveries into inventions for the benefit of society," per a news release from Rice.

Rice continues explaining that the new office's focus areas will be technology translation, startup creation, commercialization, and entrepreneurship training, as well as steering engagement at the Ion. The Office of Innovation and the new leadership position were created to ensure Rice is a leader within Houston and the global innovation ecosystem, says President Reginald DesRoches.

“Paul has already started to develop a culture of innovation and impact on campus in his role at the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering,” DesRoches says in the release. “He has created ways for faculty to serve as academic entrepreneurs, engaged external partners in innovative pursuits and started working to improve Rice’s transfer and translation systems. I look forward to continuing to work with him on these initiatives and to leveraging Rice's world-class research community, thriving entrepreneurship programming, top-ranked degree programs and talented undergraduate and graduate student body to advance and grow the institution's innovation portfolio.”

Cherukuri — who is a physicist, chemist, and medtech entrepreneur with over 15 years of experience in academia and the pharmaceutical industry — will assume the role and its responsibilities on August 16. He has served as executive director of the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering since 2016.

“I am thrilled and honored to serve in this new role at this inflection point in our university’s history,” Cherukuri says in the release. “Rice has some of the finest minds in the world and I look forward to working with President DesRoches and the leadership team he has assembled to chart a bold new path for world-changing innovation from Rice by engaging the remarkable innovation ecosystem including the Ion District, the Texas Medical Center, industry and other unique assets in Houston.”

Nine search committee members selected Cherukuri. Naomi Halas, the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the Smalley-Curl Institute, led the committee.

“Paul is the perfect fit to lead our university’s innovation future,” Halas says in the release. “His entrepreneurial experience in early-stage startups and big pharma gives him a unique ability to accelerate the translation of breakthrough discoveries into the marketplace. He creates clear pathways for researchers to find new avenues for application within the research realm as well as transition into commercial use. I am excited about the work he will do for Rice in this new role.”

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