During a global pandemic, people want clarity and empathy. Times are sensitive and turbulent, so how businesses can find the right tone to speak to their public? Find more below.
It seems somewhat superfluous to write about marketing issues in a time of Coronavirus. LinkedIn is a depressing mixture of friends and acquaintances who have seen projects cancelled, jobs vanish, and everyday bills become a real problem, mixed with pseudo-struggle bros who are telling us to hustle harder because that’s what struggle bros do at times of crisis.
But throughout the sheer madness and unpredictability of the past weeks, I keep coming back to one key tenet of the working world I inhabit: tone.
The world is a confusing place at the best of times, before you throw in a global pandemic. People are scared. They want clarity. They want to be spoken to like a human. Even if you can’t, in all honesty, tell them everything’s going to be alright, you can reassure.
Tone goes a long way to making a difference. It can make a politician like UK chancellor Rishi Sunak appear calming and statesmanlike (the bar here has, admittedly, been set quite low in recent years), or it can add to the confusion, as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conferences have occasionally done.
And for brands? Well, it’s a tricky one. Even brands who have a clear tone of voice will have approached the crisis with trepidation. Sensitivities are heightened in these times, with previously innocuous adverts understandably getting pulled. Suddenly, a population isolated becomes a population spending more time on social media, or perhaps more inclined to idly flick through branded emails they wouldn’t usually open. That doesn’t necessarily mean these people want to hear from your brand, though, especially if what you have to say is irrelevant or insensitive..
Should a previously irreverent brand become more serious? What about a more reserved brand who might want to reflect that humour has become part of a coping strategy with isolation? A well-intended, but poorly crafted and ill thought through social post is only a clickbait headline away.
Even then, a lot of people will find tone and attitude divisive. A local cafe or bar’s jaunty promotion to shop local is another person’s horror at a call to ignore social distancing. Personally, I’ve found the tone of Australian sports clubs a little unsettling over the last two weeks. While the codes kept playing, the tone felt at odds with the world, as if the virus was similar to a waterlogged pitch. Even with the shutdown, the warrior-like sports tone feels a bit… inconsequential to events on the news. That might just be me though.
Getting the tone right in 1–1 communications
There’s a few areas where tone can be especially jarring. The first is the unsolicited conversations via email. Brands who you barely remember interacting with, brands you’re pretty sure you’ve never interacted with, and brands who five minutes ago were bombarding you with “Gary, don’t miss out on your 30% discount for a product that’s literally going to be useless to you over the coming weeks” are now all solemnly queuing up to tell you that they take your health and the Coronavirus very seriously. In one instance, I’ve had an email that simply told me that the wellbeing of this brand’s customers and staff was paramount at this difficult time. Nothing else. It’s good to know you’re concerned about a serious matter, it would be better to know what you’re doing.
[As an aside, I feel particularly bad for most companies at a time like this. I’ve done a lot of crisis comms, and knowing what tone to strike is hard. It’s even harder if you don’t know if your company will survive or if you’ll have a job next week, and when you’re being pushed to get something, anything out.].
Even then, when there is something relevant to say, the tone in which you say it can be tough, as insurance and travel brands are finding it. It’s reminiscent of a scene in the drama Deutschland 86, where an East German party official attempts to write to his estranged partner to inform them of their son’s death, but ends up repeatedly screwing up the note, as he can’t find the right words.
Those who do get it right manage to strike the right brand of empathy, acknowledgement and clarity. I particularly like this email from Rest Superannuation, sent out after the government announced that Australian citizens could access their super due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“The government announced a new emergency measure for people in financial difficulty, to withdraw super of up to $10,000 in this 2019–20 financial year, and another $10,000 in the 2020–21 financial year. Applications open mid-April and you’ll need to apply direct via the Australian Government’s myGov website.
“We’d encourage you to consider accessing your super as a last resort only, due to the effect it could have on your long-term goals; as well as the impact on any insurance you may have if your balance should fall too low. If you do need to access your super, we’re ready to support you.”
It’s clear — it tells you what the situation is and what you can do. It highlights the risks in taking this course of action. But it’s also non-judgemental, and the underlying tone accounts for the fact it can’t possibly know the current financial situation of all of its members. Above all, it feels like a human wrote it — it’s still a formal relationship, but it sounds considered and reassuring, when it would have been very easy to sound too jaunty, stern, or inconsiderate.
Getting a consistency in tone
The second issue of tone comes when there’s an inconsistency across channels, most often between the language on public channels (often the website and social media), private communication like emails, and the times when you need to speak to a human, such as call centres.
This isn’t a Coronavirus issue — disjointed customer experience, often due to departments working in silos, has been an issue for brands ever since somebody uttered the phrase “I think we need a website” back in the 90s. It’s why CX agencies and consultants will still thrive. And at times of crisis, an inconsistent tone really comes to the fore.
It’s the travel brand that has beautiful, friendly evocative copy or videos on their website, emails that feel flat and written by a robot, and a customer service team who stick so rigidly to a script that all empathy goes out the window.
Many customers will be confused, perhaps even scared. At best, they need clarity or have a simple task that needs doing. At worst, their income could have vanished overnight and the simple act of contacting a service provider becomes stressful and depressing in its own right.
It’s why I like elements of the Rest example highlighted earlier. It’s non-judgemental, doesn’t try to be too clever with language, reassures, and doesn’t presume to know your state.
But an email is only one part of tone across a company. Rest’s well-balanced email tone would fall apart if it wasn’t consistent with the website copy, marketing copy and a call centre experience. It’s why this is such a hard tonal issue to solve — multiple departments all need to be pulling in the same direction, and to take their cues from the brand team, who will own tone of voice. That’s much easier said than done.
One of the best exercises I ever undertook when I was in-house at Direct Line Group, was to give regular tone and communication updates and training to the social media customer service and claims teams.
We did regular writing checks and exercise to get the teams to think about how they’d speak differently across different brands, and co-developed rules of engagement that helped the team understand where and when to flex language, especially when faced with a distressed customer. There was also a one-page laminate sheet for each brand with a quick guide to how and how not to speak in the tone of voice.
Granted, tone never solves every problem. But when you’re dealing with people who need reassurance, opening the conversation and continuing with the right tone can be incredibly important to retaining trust.
Getting your social media tone right
It’s also worth taking time to consider social media comms as a whole. If something will go badly tonally wrong, this is probably the place where it will go wrong. It’s also why a good community manager is vital — and needs support. It’s a stressful role at the best of times, without the pressure of a global pandemic.
For an industry that’s often built around reacting to trends and creating content and adverts that are designed to catch the eye and entertain, and can sometimes operate a bit autonomously from other teams, COVID-19 presents a particularly unique challenge.
During normal times of a crisis, the received wisdom is to dial it down: check for anything scheduled that might seem a bit insensitive, row back on certain type of posts, and return to normal after a short hiatus that allows the crisis, whether one of your brand’s own making or completely incidental, to move on.
But these aren’t normal times. The Coronavirus crisis and shutdown looks set to go on for months. The definition of socially acceptable and social norms are being temporarily overwritten. Culture has rapidly changed as much of the world adjusts to isolation and distancing.
The pressure internally to continue to say something, to keep top of mind and garner social vanity metrics, and to keep selling is something a lot of social media managers will have to grapple with. What was a previously suitable light-hearted tone and everyday tactics need reconsidering.
Unsurprisingly, you will get a few clunking missteps. BMW’s Tweet trying to shoehorn Coronavirus terminology managed to achieve a rare double whammy of being both nonsensical and insensitive. That’s at the extreme end. Many social media managers, to borrow a cliche, need to figure out their new normal and what that tone looks like. All while balancing with the reality that, for some, it’s entirely conceivable their own roles could cease to exist.
Even at sensitive and frantic times on social media, it’s worth carving aside some workshop time with key stakeholders, and those who might be a little less sensitive to social needs. Campaigns and work still needs to go out, but it can wait an hour or two for some sense checking.
This means asking some of these questions: What’s the current tone? Is it appropriate? What are the worst case scenarios for the brand? How would you react on social? What do you customers expect of you? What does society expect of you? Are your visuals reflective of the current world we live in? Do they need to be? What’s the biggest risk if your tone is wrong?
It won’t solve everything, but even an hour in a room discussing these questions should give a degree of clarity and confidence for those involved at every step on the social chain. That said, even if everybody agrees, it will need one team or individual to own and guard these new rules. Given the external nature of this tone, it will probably end up somewhere between PR, brand or social, depending on the organisation.
So what does this mean in practice
It’s unlikely that one piece of misplaced tone will trigger mass desertion of your brand. Providing your missteps aren’t too heinous — and your company survives — you’ll probably be ok.
But companies who do manage an appropriate tone that’s consistent with the brand, and who have a strong customer experience, are slightly more likely to be in a better position when the Corona crisis does eventually start to fade.
After all, it’s better to be trying to rebuild with a happy, loyal customer base who haven’t been put off by insensitive communications, than one who are at best ambivalent and who are open to switching due to a perceived lack of care and empathy. This won’t be the only factor, but a poor tone can exacerbate issues, especially if it’s followed by a spot of doubling down on the initial point of contention.
Ultimately, much of the advice pre-Coronavirus still stands. You’ve no idea how people are feeling. Read the room, or in this case, the country. Ensure you’re clear and that all internal stakeholders are on the same page. And have one team leading the tone and messaging. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get it completely right, but it means you’re less likely to get your tone so very, very wrong.