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Stop, Pause, Go: Language Guidelines for Communicating During a Crisis

Words matter now more than ever.

Take two words that, when put together in any given March, evoke excitement and competition: March Madness. Those same two words put together in March 2020 have an entirely different meaning and tone.

For marketing and business unit leaders, words and language present both a blindspot and an opportunity to effectively communicate with customers during the COVID-19 crisis:

One of the first steps we took at Persado in response to the COVID-19 crisis was to develop a set of internal guidelines for all our Campaign Managers, Copywriters, Quality Assurance Specialists, and Content Intelligence Managers to follow in their work on behalf of our customers. Based on data, these simple guidelines give our people a common framework to know what’s off limits, what’s questionable and what’s safe. In the same way, brand guidelines protect an organization’s visual identity, these provide guidance for the words used by our team. We’ve shared a selection of these guidelines here to help you do the same.

Stop

 

1. Puns or jokes about the COVID-19 outbreak and the current climate

While this should be obvious, it must be said. Brands need to communicate with empathy and care for their customers, and this crisis impacts everyone differently. Some of your customers or their loved ones may be sick or in a vulnerable position, whether medically or financially, as a result of the pandemic. Humor carries an extreme risk of offending key stakeholders and should be avoided in all circumstances.

Content Examples

2. Words or phrases that convey undue urgency or may be perceived as alarming 

Information overload affects customers during normal circumstances, and the impact only magnifies during a crisis. Brands should avoid language that interferes with customers’ ability to quickly recognize urgent or critical information coming from government sources or news outlets.

Content Examples

3. References to “updates,” “news,” “developments,” and so on, even when seemingly neutral or positive

The development of the COVID-19 crisis has shown us how quickly the landscape can change from one day to the next. Your customers and clients are bombarded with a slew of updates and developments about the pandemic, so avoid adding to the noise.

Content Examples

Pause: Consider context and tone before proceeding

1. Language implying immediate action is necessary

Many of your customers are facing increased levels of stress and anxiety. Your customer-centric communications should take that into account and only prompt them to take immediate action when truly needed, such as for important account notifications or other appropriate triggers.

Content Examples

2. Explicit or indirect references to the situation in playful ways

Brands need to exercise caution to avoid perceptions of trying to capitalize on tragedy. A crisis is not a marketing opportunity, and tone matters more than ever. The way brands communicate during this crisis will likely be remembered and talked about even after we settle into the new normal. Protect your brand equity in the long term by selecting this language only for applications you know your audience will find appropriate. 

Content Examples

3. Strongly suggesting or prescribing actions or next steps in direct reference to the situation

COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of your customers in a wide range of ways, and in most cases they will not appreciate reminders of the fact that they can’t leave their homes and can’t take the trips they had planned. Use caution before telling your audience what to do. Are they truly looking for your brand to tell them?

Content Examples

Go: Explore and be mindful of the message

1. More impactful ways to say “we’re here to help”

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, “we’re here for you” is now standard messaging for companies. Our recommendation is that you explain just how you are there for your customers.

Content Examples

2. Focus on additional benefits

Using more language that draws attention to the additional benefits you’re offering will reinforce elements from the previous section. You’re not just “talking the talk” — you’re communicating to your members that you’re providing them options and/or solutions to support them amid uncertain times. Be explicit when presenting information, even if it may seem obvious, and try to avoid over-selling or describing the benefits that a customer can receive in a hyperbolic way. 

Content Examples

3. Customer-centric language for leading with emotion

Remember to proactively invite your customers to connect. Being a tried-and-true Persado best practice — especially applicable when inviting customers to connect — we want to reiterate the importance of leading communications with emotional language that is not only appropriate given current events, but also focuses on the customer by using the word “You”. This will help if the goal is to communicate with customers in an even more friendly and trusting manner and remind them of your unprecedented service. This recommendation mainly applies to subheadlines, but it can be applied to other touchpoints as well.

Content Examples

We’re also sharing our internal guidelines for all of our content output. Click below to download the guidelines: