- Communicating about reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic is proving harder than messaging about closing.
- Kith’s 6+2 framework can help communicators tell a story that reasonable people expect a responsible organization to tell.
- In times of uncertainty and anxiety, placing a particular emphasis on empathy, reassurance and transparency will make reopening messages more effective.
Business, academic and religious leaders across the world are wrestling with the issues surrounding their plans to resume in-person services.
Shutting down has proven vastly easier to accomplish – and communicate – than coming back. Messaging to convey the responsible decision to suspend operations and shift employees, customers, students and guests to home-based activities was fairly straightforward: we care about you and we want to serve you, but we are making the prudent decision to shut down to protect your health and safety. Many such messages contained the vague time frame “until it is safe to reopen.”
Many politicians have permitted businesses to reopen, at least in a phased manner, but these decisions do not equate with “safe to reopen.” In our COVID-19 webinar series, we have used the metaphor of a lifeguard several times within the context of reopening. Which lifeguard will you trust to tell you it is safe to get back in the water? Indeed, organizations are having to figure out how to be their own lifeguard.
Even if political leaders and business leaders say it is safe to return, many of the people we care for, and whose health and safety we sought to protect, may not be comfortable returning. Closing clearly protected people’ health and safety. Reopening comes with a non-zero risk to their health and safety, whether it be employees or the people you serve. It was easy to say we closed to protect you. It is harder to assure your protection when we reopen.
6+2 elements of an effective statement
We introduced the 6+2 Elements of an Effective Statement during the first of our COVID-19 webinars to help communicators craft important messaging during periods of great uncertainty such as the one we all find ourselves in today. The goal is to get reasonable people within the audiences that matter most to you to conclude what you are doing is what a responsible organization would do under those circumstances. It gives you the benefit of the doubt.
The 6 refers to key elements that every major statement about a crisis or critical moment should contain:
- Empathy – express sincere, genuine care for anyone affected
- Authority – demonstrate that an executive has ownership of this issue
- Transparency – be real about what is happening (unprecedented) and how it’s impacting your people; address the fact this is a dynamic and evolving situation
- Decisiveness – say exactly what specific steps are being taken to mitigate the situation
- Reassurance – think about who is hurt, angry or scared, and what would calm them; and
- Consistency – explain how when and where you are going to keep the updates coming.
The +2 refers to additional elements that take the statement to a higher level by demonstrating care and commitment to your audiences that matter during difficult times:
- Make a Hero – give shout outs to employees, first responders or others who have stepped up to make a difference; and
- Give Back – what steps are you taking to help the broader community.
These two elements are not necessary to an effective statement and are instead opportunities to engender goodwill that can benefit an organization’s reputation during and especially after the hard times pass.
Originally, we applied this 6+2 model to initial COVID-19 communications that largely reflected the temporary closure, reduction or changed nature of services an organization provides. These same elements also apply to communications during this “middle phase” as the economy cautiously begins to reopen and return to on-site activities. As organizations begin to communicate their plans to resume in-person operations, incorporating these elements – particularly empathy and reassurance – will make a more convincing case for reasonable people to feel comfortable about returning.
Case study: Texas Tech University
On April 29, Lawrence Schovanec, President of Texas Tech University, sent a letter to the Texas Tech community announcing plans to return to in-person, on-campus classes in the fall. The letter was placed on the university’s web site along with over COVID-19 communications, and it was shared on the university’s social media channels. It included all of the 6+2 elements within its eight paragraphs, and it effectively communicates a reopening decision and a commitment to doing it safely.
Empathy: The statement shows empathy in two important ways. First, he notes the impact the pandemic has had on everyday life. Daily life on a university campus as we know it is not going to come back quickly, and he feels that sense of loss that his audience is feeling. Second, he acknowledges head-on that his audience has doubts and fears about coming to the campus.
Authority: The statement’s author is the president of the university. He demonstrates his own active involvement in the reopening process.
Transparency: Schovanec’s letter demonstrates transparency in two significant ways. First, it outlines a timetable for decisions. For example, he states, “We will make a final decision on Summer II instruction by late May,” providing students and faculty with a definite horizon so they can plan accordingly. Second, it outlines several specific “social distancing and safety protocols” that will be in place when the campus reopens.
Decisiveness: Very early in the statement, Schovanec declares his intent “to safely resume in-person teaching, learning and residential life for the fall 2020 semester using a phased return approach.” The lead is not buried. Even though the decision is predicated on health officials’ future guidance, the statement makes clear the only reason reopening would be delayed would be for health and safety reasons. The decision is otherwise firm.
Reassurance: This is a particularly important element when communicating to people who are afraid, anxious or upset. In addition to repeatedly stressing a focus on safety, the statement directly addresses vulnerable populations, showing a thoughtfulness that their concerns are woven into the planning process. He also reassures the community that changes to the on-campus experience are for a greater good. Schovanec wrote, “There will be inconveniences, but they will be necessary for us to get back to our campus, colleagues, and friends in a safe and responsible way.”
Consistency: One of our mantras during the pandemic has been “Always Be Communicating,” and Texas Tech’s statement repeatedly promises more information is coming, including “plans for a phased return to campus in the coming weeks” and a pledge to “provide additional communications with more details in a timely manner.”
+1 Make a Hero: Near the top, Schovanec wrote that he continued “to witness acts of great compassion and generosity throughout our University community and our hometown.” An opportunity was missed to highlight some of those great acts and the people behind them.
+1 Give Back: The statement includes several specific examples of how the university system has “answered the call to serve our community and state” including increasing its labs’ ability to perform COVID-19 tests and providing PPE and “emergency housing assistance to frontline healthcare workers.”
The key question
The key question for communicators during a period of uncertainty and anxiety is, are you telling a story that reasonable people would expect a responsible organization to tell?
Our 6+2 framework is a tool for helping craft that story. It is not a recipe. Some elements may be more important than others depending on the audience, the decision being communicated or the specific circumstances of the situation. Right now, empathy and reassurance deserve special emphasis. The greater transparency you demonstrate about the steps your organization is taking to restore in-person operations safely will go a long way toward reassuring your audience, giving them confidence that your commitment to their health and safety is as strong now, as you look to open, as it was when you decided to close.