By Samuel Pollen, Deputy Creative Director, Reed Words

COVID 19 has changed the way we live. And it’s rapidly changing the rules of corporate communication, too.

When did you first hear the term ‘social distancing’?

It was likely only a month or so ago. And initially, you may not have fully understood it. How distant is distant? Does this apply to friends and family, or just strangers? Do the rules change if I’m wearing a face mask?

That ambiguity is a problem, because it may have slowed down our response. The World Health Organization now recommends the term ‘physical distancing’ for this reason—though even that leaves room for interpretation.

The lesson here is clear: in a crisis, clear communication matters more than ever. But what if you’re not a public health authority? What if you’re just a company, trying to stay afloat during the biggest global crisis since the Second World War?

Then, things get a little more complicated.

Tesla: doing badly by doing good

Early on in the crisis, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted “We will make ventilators if there is a shortage”—an offer taken up enthusiastically by New York authorities.

It felt like a PR slum dunk. But people quickly pointed out that Tesla’s ventilators would arrive much too late. In response, Musk donated 1,000 off-the-shelf ventilators—which turned out to be the wrong kind for many coronavirus patients.

Even if your intentions are good, over-enthusiastic responses to the current crisis carry a risk. You need to get your story straight before saying anything, and be confident you can actually deliver on your promises. That’s what UK fashion house Burberry did before announcing a series of philanthropic measures.

Tesco: making it personal

Supermarkets are at the forefront of this crisis. They’ve had to deal with panic buying, staff shortages, evolving health advice, and the needs of elderly and vulnerable customers. One of the key challenges here is uncertainty: they can’t say anything definitive, because they simply don’t know exactly what will happen next.

UK supermarket chain Tesco’s approach was a letter from the CEO, emailed to all customers and posted on their website. It struck the right tone—honest and resolved—and appealed directly to customers for their understanding and help, before listing various in-store changes:

It is fair to say that we find ourselves in uncharted waters. COVID-19 is bringing a change to the UK and it’s clear that lots of things are going to have to shift around in order to help us cope.

At Tesco, we have been doing everything we can to keep business as usual, but we now have to accept it is not business as usual … Reacting to the latest government announcements, we have to plan on this situation being the new normal and we will do all that we can to make the food you want available, but we need your help.

The ‘letter from the CEO’ is a trope of corporate communications. It’s almost always ghostwritten, and usually says more about the CEO’s ego than anything else. But here—written in simple and direct language—it added a vital human touch.

The new rules of corporate communication

Most companies aren’t in the same position as supermarkets. They are having to close their doors entirely, quickly change their business models, or simply deal with a huge drop in demand.

They need to tell people about all of this. But they are naturally worried about striking the right tone.

With that in mind, here are three key things you should consider:

1. Only say what you need to say

By now, we’ve all received too many emails from companies we shopped with years ago detailing how they’re responding to COVID-19. 90% of them have been unnecessary, and many have simply served as a reminder to unsubscribe. The first question you should ask is: do we really need to say anything?

If you do, keep it focused. What’s the impact on your service? Can you summarise the changes in a line or two? Customers don’t need or want your unique take on the situation.

2. Find your customer benefit in a locked-down world

Companies should always be thinking in terms of customer benefits, rather than product features. But now, those benefits may well have changed.

From contactless delivery to welcome distractions for at-home children, it’s worth re-evaluating the benefits you offer. And be sure to highlight those benefits in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative.

3. Tell us how you’re keeping people safe

This crisis has reminded people of something that perhaps should be obvious: behind every shop, service and supply chain, there are people. Customers want to know whether you’re looking after retail staff, factory workers and delivery drivers.

Some of the most effective communications during this crisis have been about employee pay and benefits—topics that normally wouldn’t gain much traction. For example, Costco and Target both made headlines when they raised hourly wages by $2.

And remember: now more than ever, customers are wary of empty rhetoric. Which means to look good, you need to do good.

Talking your way out of a crisis

Already, this crisis has highlighted the remarkable flexibility of many companies—whether that’s local restaurants inventing delivery models from scratch, or breweries switching to hand sanitizer gel production. Thoughtful, proactive communication is a vital part of this transition.

Even in these difficult times, life will continue. People will still need many products and services—and some of them will be more necessary than ever. Meanwhile, on many online channels—search, paid advertising, social media—it will become even harder to make yourself heard.

Again, good communication will make a critical difference. To weather this storm, companies must find ways to adapt—but also, they must find the best way to tell that story.