As COVID-19 continues to spread across the U.S., Americans are under a near-constant barrage of information about the virus. The president. Governors. Mayors. Schools. CDC. WHO. News media. Everyone is trying to deliver essential information to the populace.
Add to that list employers for those lucky enough to not be among the 6.6 million people who applied for unemployment last week—joining the more than 3 million left jobless the previous week—according to data released by the Department of Labor today.
For the many at home, nonstop COVID-19 coverage and updates flood their social media feeds, televisions and news streams. The only way to find respite from the noise is to shut it out completely.
An Uphill Battle for Communicators
As news fatigue sets in, communicators are left with an uphill battle. The situation changes daily, with deaths and infections ever-increasing and new policies and information about how individuals can stay safe being updated constantly. People still need information, the challenge for PR is to make sure they get it.
“It’s tempting to want to over-communicate with customers and other stakeholders in a crisis, and that’s usually a wise strategy,” Jon Goldberg, chief reputation architect with Reputation Architects Inc., said.
When the audience is clearly defined, the risk of flooding your audience with too much information is less of a concern. However, with COVID-19, the audience is everyone. It’s never been more important for communicators to make sure that their messaging adds meaningfully to the signal and not the noise, Goldberg said.
“News fatigue is a concern,” said Deb Hileman, CEO of the Institute for Crisis Management. “It is easy to become overwhelmed, especially when various information sources contradict one another.”
Turn to Trusted Sources
The frameworks that can help get your important updates to the people that need them should already be in place. People are going to turn to the sources and platforms that they relied on before the crisis hit, so if you weren’t counted as a trusted source already, there’s some serious catching up to do.
“The work needed to be done on this front before the crisis happened—we are creatures of habit and trend data shows people are continuing to look to the same news and information sources they relied on before the crisis hit,” said Kim Coutts, director of communications and outreach for Civilian.
For anyone doubting the importance of building strong communications networks, Coutts said this situation solidifies the necessity of establishing and maintaining a position as a thought leader. This gives you open lines of communication when a crisis hits.
Consistency is Key
To that end, whether you’re already a thought leader or not, Tonya Daniels, who leads communications for the City of Miami Beach, said that consistency is key in maintaining the flow of information to her residents.
“We are sending out messages every day, but we are also making sure that each day we are giving new information and not just sharing the same things over and over,” she said.
Daniels warned that if your message is the same as the day before, your audience will immediately stop reading.
Use Video for a Change
For internal communicators, MWWPR EVP of corporate communications Michelle Rios suggests moving away from email and embracing alternative methods. Video calls, she says, can be a great way to make sure employees take the time to at least get updated on important company information.
“By scheduling a video conference for your entire staff, you’re ensuring that they have to stop what they’re doing and tune in,” Rios adds.
She also stresses allowing employees to participate in the call; let them ask questions and get involved.
“This offers the opportunity for engaging and increases the likelihood that the information will be retained,” she says.
But it doesn’t end there for Rios. PR should also be reinforcing key information in follow-ups that separate important messaging from other daily or regular updates.
Every Tool Used
In Miami Beach, Daniels uses a mix of tools and platforms to make sure all her residents are getting the information they need. And again, years of building relationships with community leaders has become essential to her efforts. By reaching out to a neighborhood association president to make sure they are also pushing the same message, she helps ensure residents are staying informed.
“The city is using every tool at its disposal. We have tools and contact lists to reach our businesses, condominiums and residents, individually,” she said. “We have personal contacts for each of these areas too and are making phone calls to ensure they are getting any specific messages that they need. We rely heavily on community leadership in these areas to help disseminate messages that are important.”
When thinking about platforms, Rios cautions against overly relying on email.
“Everyone is getting bombarded with inbound mail from every direction. Use it sparingly,” she says.
However, when using email, Hileman said to keep subject lines concise and action-driven to attract attention.
“If a message requires a response or some other action from the recipient, that should be stated first in the subject line. For example, I pay closer attention to messages that include things like ‘RESPONSE NEEDED’ or ‘ACTION REQUIRED’ in the subject line,” she said.
No matter what platform you’re using or what you’re trying to communicate, Goldberg suggests communicators ask themselves three questions before sending anything out: Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it targeted to the right audience?
“The more noise we create, the more we risk deafening people to information that could save their lives and the lives of those around them,” he said.
Coutts has a similar list of questions for each message that goes out and she recommends that communicators rely on their greatest assets—the gut check and a service mindset.
“I think we all need to get in a service mindset,” she said. “If you are thinking of how you can truly be of service and ensuring you are taking up as little of people’s limited time as possible to communicate something relevant and real, then you should be in a good place.”