Getting your COVID-19 communications right

3 April 2020

Writing clear and concise business communications with exactly the right tone is tricky at the best of times. But how do you get the right balance when communicating with your clients or staff about an invisible virus that's causing its fair share of disruption around the world? 

Here are five essential considerations to ensure your COVID-19 communications are achieving the result you need.

1. Define your purpose

First, put yourself in your readers’ shoes and identify what they need from you. For example, the main purpose of your communication may be to reassure your clients that you are protecting their welfare as well as that of your staff. Another purpose may be to explain how you are adapting your services.

If your priority is to reassure your clients, make sure your first sentence reflects this. You can then proceed to answer any questions they are likely to have. Include only information your readers need to know. Anything that is not relevant to the purpose of the communication becomes distracting ‘noise’ and does not belong in that communication.

2. Choose neutral words

It’s critical that your communication does not incite anxiety or panic. Avoid words like ‘pandemic’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘once in a lifetime’, ‘sweeping through’, ‘unchecked’, ‘soaring number of cases’, or ‘new normal’. Using these types of words and phrases do not add any value. Rather, they will increase your readers' anxiety and sense of uncertainty about the future.

Of these, ‘unprecedented’ has become one of the most overused words in recent months. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘unprecedented’ as something ‘that has never happened, been done, or been known before’. Aspects of the situation we are currently facing may be different from anything many people in the world have experienced in their lifetime. But COVID-19 is not the world's first pandemic and Australia has weathered many recessions. Using the word 'unprecedented' implies that we may not have the resilience to adapt to and overcome this current crisis, when history shows us otherwise.

For example, the Spanish Flu epidemic killed approximately one third of the world’s population in 1918 (around 50 million people). The HIV epidemic is ongoing and has killed 32 million people since the virus first emerged in 1981. Quarantining and self-isolation are not new practices used to combat infectious diseases, although quarantining with internet access may be a first. During the Great Depression in Australia, there was an unemployment rate of over 19% in 1932.

3. Make your message clear

One of the criticisms against Australian governments is that their communications about COVID-19 are sometimes confusing and contain ‘mixed messages’. Our leaders have a difficult job communicating about a rapidly-evolving situation to citizens desperate for quick and clear answers. It is for this very reason we need to be extra vigilant.

Study the following example:

To slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Queensland has closed its borders. Anyone entering Queensland must self-quarantine for 14 days.*

The second sentence would be referring to certain exemptions, but by placing this sentence immediately after the first statement, the reader becomes confused. If the borders are closed, how come people can get in? 

4. Use a professional yet warm tone

The way you write your communications can go a long way to making your clients feel less anxious. The first sentence in your communication is especially important because it sets the tone for the whole communication. I have received many emails in the past week that begin with a sentence along the lines of ‘We are in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic’. Not only does this set a negative tone, it is repeating information that we have been hearing for some time already in the media. 

Writing in specific and positive terms about how your organisation is adapting, rather than focusing on negative elements or repeating what they know already, will make your readers feel more confident.

Clear, specific and factual

Vague, confusing and negative

To reduce the risk of infection to our customers and staff, we have introduced physical distancing measures in our branches. These include:

  • Allowing only 15 customers inside the branch at any one time
  • Providing hand sanitiser at the entrance to the branch and on counters
  • Marking the floor to ensure a distance of 1.5 metres between each customer.

 

With the exponential increase in coronavirus cases in NSW, our customer service staff are at risk. For this reason, we have been forced to make modifications to our work practices which all our customers should follow.

 

When everyone is feeling vulnerable and uncertain, it’s also critical to avoid a bureaucratic tone. Instead, imagine you are having a face-to-face conversation with a real person and write as if you are talking to them. 

Conversational tone

Bureaucratic tone

Claim processing and COVID-19

Our claims assessors are continuing to provide the same efficient service to process your claims. However, to protect everyone's health and wellbeing, our assessors will be conducting all face-to-face interviews via teleconference or videolink.

You can contact your assessor using the same telephone number you have always used. If you need to set up a meeting, your assessor will step you through the process.

Revised claims arrangements

In compliance with government directives, the majority of our staff have been relocated to work remotely for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. However, it is not expected that this will have an impact on our services including contact details for claims assessors which remain the same for the purposes of getting in touch to arrange a teleconference.

One of the most effective COVID-19 emails I have received was from Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company. The tone was powerful and heartfelt without being too dramatic. It was also very appropriate for an arts organisation. Here is an extract:

‘… to make sure our audiences, dancers and staff are kept as safe as possible, we have made the heartbreaking decision to cancel the Bonachela/Forsythe season … In challenging times such as these, with the theatre dark and the season unstaged, your support is needed more than ever.’

The genuine tone of this email made me want to subscribe to their next season as soon as the theatres reopen. 

5. Don’t overwhelm the reader

People generally don’t read communications word for word. Rather, they will skim the page looking for information that’s relevant to them. Keeping your message to the point is especially important when communicating with people who may be in a high state of anxiety.

Making your point once clearly and concisely will be much more effective than a long, winding missive that says the same thing two or three times in different words. To break up the information, use headings, bullet points and infographics. Think of different ways you could format the information, such as question and answer style or a case study.

One of the biggest challenges when communicating about COVID-19 is to stop our own anxiety coming through in our words. Our clients and staff need to feel service providers and leadership teams are resilient and taking positive action.

Words that incite fear and anxiety are simply not helpful or necessary, and a bureaucratic tone will only alienate your reader. Instead, substitute extreme words and vague statements with neutral words and facts while maintaining a genuine and compassionate tone that shows you care.

For further guidance read our blog Words matter: preventing stigmatisation in the workplace from COVID-19

For help writing COVID-19 related communications or procedures, contact patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au or phone 02 9238 6638.

*Unless otherwise stated, all examples in this blog are fictitious.

Sources:

https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html

https://treasury.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-03/03_Colin_Clark_speech.pdf

https://www.who.int/gho/hiv/en/

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