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.

Here's how to toe the line between being precautious and alarmist when it comes to your company's approach to COVID19, aka the coronavirus. Getty Images

How your company should respond to the coronavirus, according to this Houston expert

Guest column

News stories of COVID19, also known as the coronavirus, are spreading faster than the virus itself — you can't turn on the television or open your web browser without seeing them. The virus' rapidly climbing statistics provide compelling content for today's 24/7 news cycle, but the constant inundation of new information makes it difficult for most of us to discern fact from fiction. Unfortunately, the result is too often fear – whether warranted or not.

The coronavirus and its potential global impact has already weakened an otherwise strong US economy. Now, as the virus threatens to impact everything from the NCAA's March Madness to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, organizations are considering how best to respond to their constituents' concerns and communicate their action plans.

In a blog post this week, the social media giant, Twitter, strongly encouraged it's 5,000 employees around the globe to work from home. Other companies are banning non-urgent travel. And amid mounting fears related to the virus, organizers canceled CERAWeek, an annual energy industry conference in Houston, and the cancelation of Austin's SXSW followed. Interestingly, companies that have been demonstrating an abundance of caution are being viewed favorably by the media and general public. So, what should your company be doing?

Establish an action plan

There is no need to panic or overreact — instead, act reasonably and be prepared to react responsibly as circumstances change. Your plan may only involve restricting travel now, but may have to evolve to allow employees to work from home next month.

A company's response to the coronavirus outbreak should be dictated by the nature of its business activities, its geographic areas of operation and reach, and the spread of the virus itself. A manufacturing plant in rural Texas may not have to respond in the same way a hotel in San Francisco might.

Practice cleanliness and common sense

Amid all the noise, it is easy for common sense to give way to hysteria. However, experts agree that the coronavirus is transmitted much like the cold or flu. General cleaning, hand washing, and antiviral hand sanitizers can help prevent the spread of the virus.

Make common sense precautions a part of your plan. Ensure that common areas and restrooms in your workplace are being thoroughly cleaned. Make antiviral soaps and hand sanitizers available to employees and visitors. And most importantly, encourage employees to stay home if they are feeling sick or displaying any symptoms of illness.

Communicate

In any crisis, honest communication helps to quell fear and alleviate uncertainty, so take this opportunity to reach out to your employees. If you've established a plan, share it with them. If you've stocked the supply closet with Clorox wipes, let them know. And if you've yet to formalize a plan, simply assure your employees that you are closely monitoring the situation and that your team is prepared to respond if circumstances in your area or industry change.

Look for opportunity

It sounds distasteful, but it needn't be. 3M, the makers of surgical masks, have announced they will ramp up production to respond to increased demand. 3M didn't manufacture this crisis, but they are responding to it in a positive way.

Moreover, general practitioners and scientists in every media market are being interviewed as subject matter experts on viruses — these doctors probably never anticipated such publicity, but by sharing their expertise, they are providing a useful public service. Consider whether your company can provide a helpful product, service or resource.

The coronavirus isn't the typical business crisis — astute leadership cannot resolve it, nor can ingenuity quickly solve it. But in the coming months, strong leadership and resourcefulness will be needed to proactively plan, effectively respond and ultimately rebound without ever giving into fear.

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Terrie James is the senior corporate communications expert at Paige PR, a Houston-based public relations and marketing agency.

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Cancer-fighting company based in Houston emerges from stealth and snags $74M in its latest round

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A Houston-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company has raised millions in its latest round.

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. closed its $74 million series B funding round led by new investors New York-based Slate Path Capital, Florida-based Palkon Capital, Denver-based ArrowMark Partners, and New York-based 683 Capital, with continued support and participation by existing investors, including Houston-based Sporos Bioventures.

"We are thrilled to move out of stealth mode and partner with this lineup of long-term institutional investors," says Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi. "With this financing we are positioned to advance the clinical development of our small molecule inhibitors of STAT3 into mid-stage trials as well as grow our team."

Through Slate Path Capital's investment, Jamie McNab, partner at the firm, will join Tvardi's board of directors.

"Tvardi is the leader in the field of STAT3 biology and has compelling proof of concept clinical data," McNab says in the release. "I look forward to partnering with the management team to advance Tvardi's mission to develop a new class of breakthrough medicines for cancer, chronic inflammation, and fibrosis."

Tvardi's latest fundraise will go toward supporting the company's products in their mid-stage trials for cancer and fibrosis. According to the release, Tvardi's lead product, TTI-101, is being studied in a Phase 1 trial of patients with advanced solid tumors who have failed all lines of therapy. So far, the drug has been well-received and shown multiple durable radiographic objective responses in the cancer patients treated.

Dr. Keith Flaherty, who is a member of Tvardi's scientific advisory board and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, offered his support of the company.

"STAT3 is a compelling and validated target. Beyond its clinical activity, Tvardi's lead molecule, TTI-101, has demonstrated direct downregulation of STAT3 in patients," he says in the release. "As a physician, I am eager to see the potential of Tvardi's molecules in diseases of high unmet medical need where STAT3 is a key driver."

Networking with high-status colleagues isn't successful across industries, per Rice University research

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In a timeless scene from the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," an 80s metal band swaggers in for a performance only to find they're billed second to a puppet show. Though the film is farce, real musicians often come to question the value of playing second fiddle to anyone – even an A-lister.

Now research by Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and colleagues Damon J. Phillips and Fabrizio Castellucci confirms those musicians are right to wonder. In fact, they discovered, the only thing worse than performing after a puppet may be opening up for an idol. Bands that consistently open up for groups with higher status, the researchers found, earn less money – and are more likely to break up than those that don't.

"Three cheers," The Economist wrote about the researchers, for confirming "what many people in the music industry have long suspected – that being the opening band for a big star is not a first class ticket to success."

While the findings may be intuitive for seasoned musicians, they fly in the face of existing business research. Most research about affiliations concludes that hobnobbing with high-status colleagues gives lowly newcomers a boost. Because affiliations give access to resources and information, the reasoning goes, it's linked with individual- and firm-level successes such as landing jobs and starting new ventures.

Both individuals and organizations, one influential study notes, benefit from the "sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships."

That's largely because in many fields up and comers must fight to be taken seriously – or noticed at all. This problem is often called "the liability of newness:" In order to succeed, industry newcomers first need to be considered legitimate by the audience they're trying to woo.

Showing off shiny friends is a classic solution. In many fields, after all, linking oneself with a high-status partner is simply good branding: a shorthand signal to audiences or consumers that if a top dog has given their approval, the newcomer must surely have some of the same excellent qualities.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always hold true – especially in the creative world, Piazza's team found. In the frantic world of haute cuisine, for example, a faithful apprentice to a celebrity chef may actually suffer for all those burns and cuts in the star's hectic kitchen. Unless they can create meals that are not just spectacular, but show off a distinct style, consumers may sneer at the newcomer as a knockoff of the true master.

So what determines if reflected glory makes newcomers shine or merely eclipses them? It has to do with how much attention there is to go around, Piazza said. While partnering with a star helps in some fields, it can be a liability when success depends on interaction between audience and performer. That's because our attention – that is, ability to mentally focus on a specific subject – is finite. Consumers can only take in so much at a time.

Marketers are acutely aware of this scarcity. Much of their time, after all, is spent battling for consumer attention in an environment swamped by competitors. The more rivals for advertising attention, research shows, the less a consumer will recall of any one ad. In the world of finance, publicly traded companies also live and die on attention, in the form of analyst coverage of their stocks and angel investors' largesse.

Musicians who perform live, Piazza said, are battling for attention in a field that's gotten progressively more fierce, due to lower album sales and shorter career spans. Performing in the orbit of a major distraction such as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, however, only reduces the attention the opening act gets, the researchers found. Though performances are just a few hours, the attention drain can do lasting harm both to revenue and career longevity.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data about the live performances and careers of 1,385 new bands between 2000 and 2005. Supplementing this with biographical and genre information about each band along with musician interviews, the team then analyzed the concert revenue and artistic survival of each band.

They discovered that in live music, high status affiliation onstage clearly diluted audience attention to newcomers – translating into less revenue and lower chance of survival.

In part, the revenue loss also stems from the fact that even in big stadium performances, performing with superstars rarely enriches the underdogs. According to a 2014 Billboard magazine report, headliners in the U.S. typically absorb 30 to 40 percent of gross event revenues; intermediate acts garner 20 to 30 percent and opening acts for established artists bring as little as $15,000.

The findings were surprising, and perhaps dispiriting, enough for the researchers to carefully spell out their scope. Affiliation's positive effects, they said, are most often found in environments of collaboration and learning – for example academia. In these settings, a superstar not only can bestow a halo effect, but can share actual resources or information. In the music world, however, the fleeting nature of a shared performance makes it hard for a superstar band to share much with a lower-ranked band except, perhaps, some euphoric memories.

Interestingly, in many businesses it's easy for observers to quickly assume affiliations between disparate groups. In the investment banking industry, for instance, research shows that audiences infer status hierarchies among banks merely by reading "tombstone advertisements," the announcements of security offerings in major business publications. Readers assume underwriting banks to be affiliated with each other when they're listed as being part of the same syndicate – even if the banks actually have little to do with each other beyond pooling capital in the same deal.

In the music business, star affiliations mainly help an opening act a) if the audience understands there's an affiliation and b) if they believe the link is intentional. But that's not always the case because promoters and others in Big Music often line up opening bands. When possible, though, A-listers can do their opening acts a solid by making it clear that they've chosen them to perform there.

Otherwise, Piazza and his colleagues concluded, the light shed by musical supernovas typically gets lost in the darkened stadium. For the long term, business-minded bands may do best by working with peers in more modest venues – places where the attention they do get, like in Spinal Tap's classic metric, goes all the way up to 11.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.