Strategic and multilingual communications have always been critical to business success. They include employee and stakeholder relations, as well as marketing, public affairs and customer service. Under normal circumstances, their cost is naturally justified. But the importance of quality, timely communications has never been greater than in exceptional and challenging times.
When a major crisis like COVID-19 strikes, many organizations have tough decisions to make, as many variables linked to their continued success become uncertain.
Should you consider reductions in your communications budget, as you would for a commodity, while your business rides out the storm? This would prove to be a mistake. In fact, well-planned and targeted strategic, multilingual communications are critical to protecting the organization’s reputation and image and maintaining the quality of its relationships with its customers and its workforce. During the recent 2008 recession (and all previous recessions over the past 100 years), organizations that invested in their communications made significant gains. Those that didn’t only compounded their losses.
The key issue, then, is to figure out what new and different types of communications will work best. Here are a few pointers that might help you make it through an exceptionally challenging situation.
6 approaches to consider
- Maintaining a sustained and comforting presence
- Gathering information to understand each target audience and its changing requirements
- Finding the right tone that conveys empathy and optimism
- Promptly adapting to situations in a context of constant change
- Effectively leveraging digital communications and platforms
- Making the most of both internal and external expertise
1. Maintaining a sustained and comforting presence
Our political leaders’ daily television appearances since March 2020 have demonstrated that communications aren’t just about keeping us informed. They also help shape our collective experience, creating a certain sense of stability despite the turmoil and insecurity. As it turns out, businesses have a social mission of their own—one that’s become an integral part of their strategic direction, and it’s essential that they form part of the conversation that’s happening daily on all kinds of communications platforms.
Crises and exceptional circumstances also present an interesting paradox. Even in the worst situations, promising opportunities arise to foster loyalty and build or strengthen relationships. That’s why your comforting presence in people’s hearts, minds and lives is more valuable than ever. The more other organizations fail to communicate, the greater your impact—not just during a crisis, but down the road as well. Conversely, insufficient or inadequate communications can really damage your position, image and reputation. Catching up once the crisis finally subsides might be quite a lengthy and costly process.
All languages matter
Keeping your business and brand visible requires timely and effective communications with all your target audiences, in all relevant languages. That’s why translation planning and coordination are so important. You need an agile and committed language service provider to promptly meet your needs at all times. In the midst of a crisis, many organizations may overlook or disregard translation, which can lead to unfortunate consequences. In October 2020, for example, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages reported on major translation problems within the Government of Canada.
“(…) a number of climate, health and public safety emergencies (…) have highlighted the fundamental importance of communicating with the public in both English and French in times of crisis. Each of these recent emergencies has revealed serious and recurring shortcomings in terms of official languages—shortcomings that can have harmful consequences and even put Canadians’ lives at risk.”
A Matter of Respect and Safety: The Impact of Emergency Situations on Official Languages
2. Gathering information to understand each target audience and its changing requirements
There are a number of target groups you would do well to consider beyond your customers and employees, who are your obvious priority. Be sure to keep the following in mind:
a) Partners and investors protect your business-critical network
b) Communities expect you to act as a good corporate citizen—and will reward you for helping
c) Media and governments are key contacts if you want to have a say in how the crisis is managed and how it impacts your industry and business
It’s also important to understand the very diverse—and constantly evolving—needs and perceptions within each target group.
Experts agree that existing clients should be your top priority in times of crisis. You know them best, they know you best, and it’s their business that really pays off. Keep in mind that loyalty programs can make a big difference, as evidenced during the 2008 recession and the first wave of the pandemic.
Another challenge is being aware of significant differences in various people’s situations, perceptions and needs across your various market segments. Here’s an interesting example: a survey covering the first six months of the pandemic showed that Canadians can be divided into four distinct consumer segments. In the “Save and Stockpile” segment (35% of the population), people were more or less impacted, but showed greater concern for their families. More than a third (37%) of them were spending more on groceries, while most were spending less on clothing (73%) and leisure (80%). Consumers in the “Cut Deep” segment (27% of the population) were hardest hit. As a result, the majority (80%) of this group were shopping less frequently, with more than half (60%) buying only essentials. In the other two segments, people essentially either kept the same buying habits or occasionally spent more on certain items for various reasons.
Your communications should always reflect linguistic and geographic differences. This requires ongoing analysis and monitoring of each group’s unique profile and situation, in each language and location. There may be major gaps, as not all groups, for example, receive the same level of quality communications tailored to their needs.
We have pointed out the importance of speed of execution, which requires effective teamwork. In times of crisis, employee engagement also matters more than ever. The following are proven drivers of high employee engagement:
- Proactive, comforting leadership
- Clear and consistent messages, in line with the company’s mission and values
- Direct dialogue, not only about work
- A deep appreciation of, and empathy for, each individual’s personal and professional issues, in keeping with their unique profile and situation (including language and geography)
Understanding your target groups
Listening is essential in times of crisis. Seize valuable opportunities to validate your understanding and approach by making occasional silence a part of your communications strategy. Collecting and welcoming feedback is also important, as is monitoring closely what’s happening at any given time and how people act or react.
Gathering data and carefully analyzing it before you make decisions is key. Your data shows how things have changed and keep changing throughout the crisis. It allows for better targeting and helps you stand out in several ways:
- By creating truly original communications
- By building more direct connections with people, whenever possible and when relevant
- By playing a key part in discussions and reflections that matter to you and your target audiences
- By measuring the impact—or lack thereof—of your different communications initiatives
3. Finding the right tone that conveys empathy and optimism
What matters most during a crisis isn’t the products and services you offer, but rather how you make people feel. Demonstrating empathy should be your priority, with messages that say you’re there for them and want to help. Help can mean listening, informing, assisting, entertaining, or inspiring.
What about optimism in the face of such a severe, drawn-out crisis? While “typical” humour is to be avoided (or certainly reconsidered), the following approaches allow you to combine empathy and optimism without denying how bad things are nor adding to people’s insecurities:
- Focusing on the best this crisis brings out in people, communities and organizations: sticking together when times are tough while hoping for and, and dreaming of, a better future
- Always remaining true to your mission and values, and those of your various audiences
- Surveys show that in times of crisis, nearly 40% of consumers want advertising to provide first and foremost a sense of comfort and normalcy
- Over 30% of consumers want advertising to convey optimism
- Close to 90% of younger consumers expect businesses to actively support their communities during the pandemic
4. Promptly adapting to all situations in a context of constant change
During an extended crisis that spans months and hits in consecutive waves, people’s situations are constantly evolving. As a result, advance communications planning just isn’t possible. You need to be agile and responsive so that you can change course virtually overnight. Your challenge is twofold: avoiding mistakes and seizing every opportunity.
This requires top speed of execution across different teams working together. A few pointers to help make it happen:
- Ensure your managers and executives are personally involved
- Set up a special crisis team
- Build a clear action plan to be shared and used by all teams
- Monitor everything closely on an ongoing basis
- Prioritize and adjust your strategies every single week
5. Effectively leveraging digital communications and platforms
When people are forced distance themselves from colleagues, customers or stakeholders, much of their social and professional lives suddenly have to happen online. Many also end up with unexpected “time to kill” while stuck at home for weeks and months, not knowing what lies ahead. Understandably anxious, they need not only more online content, but relevant quality content.
Content marketing is an effective communications strategy in this type of situation. Think of blog posts, videos, or information shared via social media. In times of crisis, as well as afterwards, content marketing can make it easier for you to help people and build stronger, lasting connections with those who really have the right profile for your organization. Beyond its commercial and strategic value, relevant high-quality content can nurture the physical, mental, and economic health of entire communities. It also helps counter disinformation, with its growing social and psychological impact.
Marketing experts estimate the following regarding increased content creation during the pandemic:
- 66% more social media posts
- 57% more blog posts
- 50% more videos
It’s probably your best platform to showcase useful products and services. Consider introducing new options such as online appointments and delivery booking, or customer service management. Keep in mind, too, that for potential partners or customers your site serves as their likely means of researching and contacting your business. You really want it to include everything people need in terms of content and functionalities.
Blog posts are an ideal means of distributing content on your website or social media. With feature articles on meaningful issues, you can attract, help and retain people in each of your target audiences.
Videos can be very comforting in times of isolation, so it’s not surprising that they’ve been so popular since the pandemic began. They provide great learning and entertainment opportunities. In addition, they can be cheaper to produce during a crisis, as many people appreciate the authenticity of less polished content.
They’re inexpensive platforms that work well for all kinds of communications (relational, promotional, community-based, etc.). Thanks to their impressive customization potential, social media also help build more direct connections—which is exactly what you want during a crisis. Another benefit is widespread sharing at no cost to you, as your target customers are likely to share your content with their own contacts. What’s more, you can leverage feedback-tracking functionalities to monitor people’s needs and perceptions. There are even specific reputation monitoring and management tools.
With people spending more time online and platforms allowing for highly effective targeting, digital advertising can be an excellent way of sharing your content and offering. Something to keep in mind, though: many of your competitors may have similar ideas and strategies. You need to be very creative if you want to stand out.
Yes, it’s still a great way to keep in touch with everyone on your mailing lists. These people are easy to reach as you already have their email addresses. The very fact, too, that they’ve given you their address is a sign of their trust, and therefore importance to your organization. You’ve contacted them before, so chances are they’ll be more than happy to receive messages telling them how you’re doing—and especially what you can do for them during the crisis.
They’re valuable allies that can give certain businesses increased visibility and relevance in difficult times. And guess what? It’s never too late to build public relations strategies and win-win connections with the media.
6. Making the most of both internal and external expertise
When faced with a crisis, many businesses decide to have key marketing and communications functions performed by internal staff rather than their usual external partners. While this approach helps cut costs and keep employees busy when business is slow, it may prove risky and result in decreased quality and efficiency, as well as delays. For timely, optimal communications at the lowest possible cost, it’s more important than ever to entrust every task to the absolute best expert.
Some external partners are essential during a crisis and help to ensure that your communications really pay off. Only they can provide specific types of expertise in areas like strategic analysis, content creation for multiple media, professional translation and adaptation for various languages and geographies, content dissemination, technology management, metrics and monitoring, etc. Plus they provide guaranteed capacity at all times.
Be sure to consider this issue and make the right decisions for your organization in times of crisis.
Versacom is here for you
At Versacom, we know your success is at stake and we’re committed to creating new custom solutions for unprecedented needs. We have all the professional, technological and strategic resources to help you meet your communications challenges in any relevant language and market. From planning to execution and follow-up, our expertise complements your own.
Rest assured that all our professionals share the same ethical concern for your challenges and the tough decisions you need to make. We’re not here to take advantage of an exceptionally difficult situation. We’re here to listen, understand, reflect, advise and support you in ways that will pay off.