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Phoebe Netto on government comms during COVID-19 crisis and lessons learned

Phoebe Netto, founder of Pure Public Relations

What the government’s handling of COVID-19 can teach you about your own communications

Say what you want about the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, but one thing’s for certain: there are a lot of lessons to be learned.

In a time of uncertainty and unpredictability, people need to know what’s coming and what the next moves are. A lot of anxiety comes from a fear of the unknown, including how a crisis is being handled and what’s next. 

This is true of the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, but it’s also true of all business communications more widely. There are so many lessons that business leaders can take from the government’s handling of the current situation – even if they might be learning from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s mistakes. 

Make your message relevant

Australians are currently hanging on Scott Morrison’s every word, especially when it comes to updates on the lockdown restrictions. Every time he repeats the same point, you can almost audibly hear the exasperation from Australians around the country. People only care about the vital information that will impact their families, businesses and way of life: anything else is surplus to requirements. 

This is true in business, too. Your customers should feel like every message they hear from you is useful and important. Adding to the noise with pointless communication puts you at risk of irritating or even angering customers who might not even remember being put on your mailing list.

Different stakeholders need different messages. Instead of running around firing blanket messages to everyone, put a specific plan in place that details the different messages that different people need. 

Take a long term view of the customer, and understand that just because they might not be buying from you now, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to buy from you in the future. The way to get that future sale is not through the hard sell, but by adding genuine value to the customer’s lives. 

Content that can genuinely add value is a great way to bring the customer on board with your brand for the long haul. It’s not about telling everyone why your business is great, it’s about showing them through meaningful, relevant conversations, and by being generous in sharing your expertise. You can buy likes, you can buy traffic, you can buy attention; but the one thing you can’t buy is a connection with your customer. Now is the time to focus on that connection. 

Never be dismissive

Trust is already at a low in Australia, thanks to the government’s less-than-ideal handling of the recent bushfire crisis. In order to rebuild confidence, the country needs its leader to give clarity and reassurance rather than ambiguity, dismissive comments and inconsistent behaviour. All this does is make the work of the government even harder, which, in a time of crisis, is the last thing anyone wants. The Australian government has made big improvements in winning trust during this crisis, and the corresponding reduction in resistance is notable.

The lesson for all business owners is to be reassuring, but not dismissive. You might be tempted to reduce panic by downplaying a crisis, but that can actually add to the fear by delegitimising people’s concerns. It can come across as uninformed or naïve, and can position you as uncaring or irresponsible, whatever your particular crisis might be. 

A crisis requires a different plan

One point in the government’s favour is how quickly it has adjusted its strategy to the current climate. In the space of a couple of months, it has already released two apps and has launched a Whatsapp messaging service. In a crisis, the days of red tape are a distant memory. 

Business leaders need to take this example to heart. Understand that in a crisis, things aren’t going to be business as usual, and be prepared to adjust accordingly. Much of your existing messaging is going to be utterly irrelevant, and any automated marketing needs to stop. 

This is even more so the case in the current crisis. A message that might have worked three months ago can appear downright offensive today, simply because the context of how we live has changed so dramatically. 

Images of people having a BBQ, hanging out at the beach, or not complying with social distancing restrictions will come across as tone deaf. Creative should be far more understanding of where people’s heads are currently at, especially because people are tuning out to things that aren’t COVID-19 specific. 

COVID-19 has levelled out the business playing field dramatically. Many of your competitors are struggling to adjust their previous strategies to fit the new normal, or shrinking in fear and cutting their communications entirely. If you’re able to look beyond the headlines and see a clear communications strategy for your business, now is the perfect time to take advantage.

Use this freed up space to focus on getting your comms strategy right, and keep your eyes open for lessons you can learn from the dramatic shifts we’ve all had to make to our businesses and our lives.

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations, a PR firm that focuses on outcomes, not output – it’s pure and simple. For over ten years, Pure Public Relations has been bringing big business experience to SMEs and not-for-profits.

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Phoebe Netto

Phoebe Netto

Phoebe Netto is the Managing Director of Good Business Consulting, a business advisory specialising in marketing and public relations (PR) for small-to-medium sized businesses. Phoebe has lead PR and marketing programs for a diverse range of clients, from listed Australian companies, global brands, not-for-profits through to sole operators. She now takes these skills that are often reserved for big businesses, and uses them to help good small businesses grow and meet their objectives by retaining their customers and attracting new ones. Follow Phoebe on twitter for PR, marketing and small business advice, plus a little nonsense! @Phoebe_Netto

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