In the world of communications, 2020 will be remembered for some of the best and worst examples of corporate messaging.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through North America with astonishing speed in early March, businesses in all industries saw their doors forced shut for an undetermined length of time. This subsequently led almost every business with an email roster of past clients to reach out to their entire contact list. These emails were primarily intended to inform the business’ contacts of the closure, and wish their past and current patrons health and safety in weathering this storm.
Yet many of these communications were poorly targeted, which made for some laughable results. Most people trying to clear their inbox of non-stop mass emails could not have cared less that the automotive dealership they visited once for a test drive 7 years ago had temporarily closed up shop, or that an online store they shopped at for a one-time purchase for an ex was wishing them well during this ‘unprecedented time.’
Other messages, however, had more concrete foundations, and a more wholesome purpose. Businesses that did remain open throughout the pandemic, such as grocery stores and other essential services, highlighted the precautions they were taking to keep both their workers and their customers safe. Others highlighted the initiatives that they were taking to support communities in need, both locally and abroad, such as assisting with food supply or other emergency provisions.
The lessons here are key. First, know your audience. This does not mean that any business should avoid reaching a new audience, yet responding to a global crisis is not the time for blatantly opportunistic marketing. Mass communications without any targeted parameters will likely be seen as a nuisance by far more people than will find the approach useful.
Second, with social media omnipresent, empty words and sentiments can turn your business into a prime target for mockery and scorn. With COVID, brands that have seemingly no connection to public health attempted to preach best practices on sanitation. Businesses that claimed a desire to protect public safety while leaving their own workers in precarious conditions were widely lambasted, and deservingly so. Businesses that took extra measures to protect and care for their workers, clients, and communities will likely see a benefit from their goodwill long after this pandemic is over.
Which brings us to this month.
There is an international rallying cry to recognize that Black Lives Matter. The movement has been years in the making, but gained traction after horrific stories and videos of police brutality became widespread. Naturally this is a sensitive time, with demonstrations happening in major cities and small towns around the world, and a White House that seems all but deaf to the cause.
The movement has had businesses of all sizes doing some deep introspection, yet it seems that those same rules still apply. Large businesses have fallen under a very public microscope, and statements about empowering Black voices made by entirely Caucasian executive teams are being scorned for their disingenuousness. It is difficult, and even foolhardy, to speak with any sense of authority on the importance of Black leadership when your business has never previously promoted or championed diversity.
Moreover, just like with COVID-19 messaging, businesses that follow their words with actions are receiving the greatest praise, and deservedly so. Businesses that support Black leadership, make sizeable donations to causes that are focused on the Black community, and make other tangible efforts to support the Black community are going far and beyond others that are just offering empty platitudes and well wishes. Once again, those that are offering compassionate public statements while privately chiding employees for taking a vocal stance are being lampooned across social media. Black Lives Matter is not just an organization or a hashtag and businesses have the opportunity to place themselves on the right side of history.
When thinking about your corporate communications during tumultuous times, remember these three things:
Know your audience - Think about who needs to hear what you have to say (spoiler alert: it may not be everybody), and speak directly to them so that you can offer something of insight or value. A blanket e-blast with nothing of value to contribute is not only unhelpful, but may be a turn off for future customers when contemplating using your services.
Mean what you say - Between a global pandemic and a social uprising, we are living in complicated times, and your business’ communications will not be as simple as a standard two-line holiday greeting. If you are going to issue a statement, make sure that it not only reflects the core values of your business, but that you are also making real and substantial efforts to keep your business aligned with those values.
Don’t rush to make a statement just because everyone else is - As we speak about empty statements, this lesson is crucial. Not every business needs to put out a statement, especially if they are ill-prepared to do so. This is simply not the time to opine if you have nothing to contribute to the conversation. As the old parable goes, “it is better to stay quiet and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”