Nobody was really ready for the effects of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). That goes for everyone in pretty much every walk of life, but marketing is the world I live in, so I’ll limit myself to this realm.
More than anyone else in marketing, probably, social media managers have needed to pivot quickly. There’s no “taking a break” from Twitter if you’re managing a brand. And since the first rule of crisis management on social is to have a plan in place before the problems come, the first moments were crucial. Some had a plan, and they were fine. But what about the rest of us? What if you didn’t have a plan in place already—what if you weren’t ready?
Since it’s too late to fix that problem for today’s crisis, let’s discuss the strategy you should adopt going forward, to get through this strange and uncertain time we’re all experiencing together.
The status quo is gone
Smart marketers make plans. Maybe we aren’t planning a whole year out before it’s even started, because we all know things change fast (like, you know, we’re all experiencing right now). But we have an idea of what we want to get done over the next several weeks and months, and we try to execute.
The really successful marketers, though, are the ones who are most ready for when things do change. They change course fast. And that’s more important on social than anywhere else.
If you had a social media plan in place to cover the next week, month, or quarter, it’s going in the trash now. If you had tweets, newsletters, or other communications scheduled, unschedule them. All of them. The last thing you want to do is invite someone to travel right now, or post something with people shaking hands or hugging without acknowledging what’s going on in the world. It makes you look out of touch at best, and can veer into being tone-deaf.
The response to coronavirus is universal. This isn’t just something that business owners are dealing with (obviously), it’s something the human race is dealing with. It’s a shared experience.
So share it. What are you thinking and feeling—as a brand, sure, but also as a person? Are you scared? Resilient? Hopeful? Pessimistic? There’s room for some of all of that. It’s honest, and it’s transparent, and your followers appreciate it when you get real. They’re not here for you to dump buzzwords on them. But even if you are feeling a lot of negative emotions right now, try not to allow that to be all you’re showing. Nobody wants their software provider or accountant to scare the crap out of them...the news is worrying enough.
You also can’t swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Some levity is okay, times are tough and people appreciate a smile more now than they probably have in a while. But don’t make light of the situation. Memes and GIFs might get impressions when individuals are posting or sharing them, but that’s not your place as a brand right now. Assume that people who follow you are closely impacted by what’s going on, and act accordingly.
Finally, feel free to interact and engage with your followers, but be aware of their situation. Be empathetic—emotions are running high for everyone right now, and people might be a little more willing to take a swing at you online than usual. You’re going to have to be ready to take that with class, and not respond. Nobody wants to see that right now.
Hit more than one note
It’s very, very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all content right now has to be coronavirus content. After all, it’s pretty much all we’re thinking about as people right now. We’ve all become amateur epidemiologists, why should your brand be talking about anything else? And yeah, obviously ignoring it is stupid. I can’t advise that in a blog post about reacting to COVID-19 with a straight face, can I?
But you can still hit other notes. About a 50/50 split is probably good—that way you’re giving your followers the updates and advice they’re looking for as they navigate today’s world, but you’re also reminding them that your business is continuing to do its work, as close to “as usual” as you possibly can.
Be helpful—not part of the problem
When you are talking about the coronavirus, make sure you’re contributing positively to the public dialogue. Things like providing industry-relevant tips for things people can do from home, whether in their new work-from-home lifestyle or in life in general. How can they use your product or service differently with kids at home? What can you provide to make people’s lives a little easier or a little better in these trying times?
And if you’re talking about the situation itself, it’s even more important to make sure you aren’t part of the problem. Whether it’s advice, news, or data, make sure it’s properly sourced. Don’t pass along something your uncle emailed you—if it’s not from the WHO or CDC or someone of similarly unimpeachable authority, just don’t share it. It’ll make you look awful if it turns out to be wrong, and more importantly it could potentially put your followers in danger. You should always be careful with what you post, but these days lives could be affected—so be even more cautious than normal.
Plan ahead for next time
Obviously we’re all hoping there isn’t going to be a “next time” for an event of this magnitude and negative impact. But one way or the other, there will be a next crisis. It might be a badly phrased tweet, or the right thing at the absolute wrong time. It might be a local tragedy or disaster. It might be something we couldn’t come close to predicting today—after all, as we’ve all learned over the past couple months, that can happen.
You’re going to learn a lot as a marketer—for social media and otherwise—during this crisis. Use it. Prepare for the next time you have to react fast, starting now. Build a crisis communication plan that you can roll out at the first sign of trouble so you can spend less time cleaning up messes. Instead, you can break out the playbook and know exactly what to do and when, so you can get back to normal faster.
There’s a lot that goes into this process, from identifying issues to defining what a crisis actually is and more. Hootsuite goes into a ton of detail about what you ought to do to prepare for things to go haywire. However much detail you decide you need, though, there’s no question that you do definitely need to have a plan in place. And if you already do, take a look at how it fared through COVID-19. What worked? What failed? What helped, and what turned out to be superfluous? We can all learn something from this, so put those learnings into practice going forward.
You can’t wait for normal
Like everyone, we’re hoping this crisis is resolved soon, and we can all get to the work of moving towards normalcy sooner rather than later. But social media marketers don’t get to take a break and wait for normal.
With this guide, you’re ready to navigate these stormy waters safely (or at least as safely as possible). Be smart, be empathetic, and be clear. You’ll go far with those guiding principles any day, but especially during a crisis.
Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.
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