- Communicators will have to do a lot of extra work to tell the story of how we come back from COVID-19.
- Specific audiences should receive specialized messages that address their particular needs, but those need to be consistent and fit the themes of your main messaging.
- Ease that extra work by using tools like a Message Triangle and our 6+2 framework to empower single-constituent communicators to tailor your main messages to their specific audiences.
A recent Wall Street Journal article described some of the societal changes that have occurred in South Korea, which is a few weeks ahead of us in their pandemic journey:
“When people meet in their offices, they wear masks. Diners are sitting in a weird sort of zigzag pattern instead of directly across from each other. Hotel rooms are ventilated. Airports are empty. Zoo patrons must stand six feet apart …. A 29-year-old worker at a bakery in Seoul now takes shoppers’ temperatures at the entrance of the bakery, asks them to sanitize their hands, and reminds them to swipe their own credit cards.”
She said something I found very profound: “It’s a lot of extra work to manage customers now.”
I think this context of “a lot of extra work” is really relevant for all of us as communicators as we move forward. We want it to be over. We’re in what I’ve been calling the mushy middle phase, but the challenge is that it’s going to be a lot of work to communicate how we come back into a “normal” for today, and it’s on us to figure that out.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about this concept of a lot of extra work. It fits in the understanding that everyone is just “over it,” and it has ranged from a conversation about face mask policies to the realities of communicating in a post-COVID world.
The above anecdote from a bakery worker in Seoul sets the stage for a lot of extra work that’s going to need to be done. And communicators are going to be responsible for it. On a recent webinar with university risk managers, I was asked a question about separate stakeholder communications and then the nuances of reaching different audiences on different channels. My response was that the message needs to be as universal as possible across all stakeholders, but that as we get into the difficult conversations about what we will and what we won’t be doing in a post-COVID world, there will be a lot of extra work for communicators.
Decentralizing the Extra Work
The typical higher ed context is you have external communications, internal communications, and then typically student affairs communicators. Those are just three of the audiences that need specialized communications. Parents, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and trustees are all constituencies that need to be communicated with. What we’re recommending to our clients is a tool called a Message Triangle that articulates a key set of themes and supports them with three logical arguments.
This approach will allow strategic communicators to share a foundational document with single-constituent communicators that are focusing on specific stakeholders.* Using a simplified, hierarchical approach to communications allows a macro message to resonate while permitting single-constituent communicators to adapt it to their specific audiences. So, yes, we think that specific audiences should receive specific messages that address their particular needs, but those need to be consistent and fit the themes of the main messaging and our 6+2 framework for crafting an effective message, which we evangelized during our COVID-19 webinar series.
You can download a PowerPoint template of the Message Triangle here together with our 6+2 framework.
So we as strategic communicators have a lot more work that’s going to need to be done as we communicate in this context of a new normal, but we can decentralize that work – we can democratize that information – as long as there’s alignment and agreement around first principles and the mission and value of your organization and and a clear understanding about chain of command. We’re recommending that a small strategic working group come together to think about these communications issues and define the main messages. Then think about the various audiences, who communicates directly with them and the potential questions that stakeholders and those that matter most to you are going to ask.
Need vs. Want
There’s also this to consider. It’s relatively straightforward to communicate what people need to hear, but it is much more difficult to communicate what people want to hear.
People have expectations and want their questions answered, and it’s your specialized, single-constituent communicators who may be more attuned to those expectations. In this context of having “a lot of extra work to do,” we need to not only communicate what they need to know – factual information, new procedures and expectations – but also we also need to understand their questions and their need for clarity, reassurance and empathy. Using the 6+2 framework, using a Message Triangle and creating a strategic working group to think about these things and answering their questions in advance before they get asked, are really solid best practices.
*In this context, strategic communicators are responsible for the overall communications and messaging of the organization and are instrumental in developing that messaging, responding to crises and advising senior leadership. When I say single-constituent communicators, I mean communicators who typically focus on a single audience. These include student affairs communicators in a higher ed setting, investor relations communicators in a corporate setting and marketing communicators reaching out to VIP customers in a retail or hospitality setting.