This article is based on a broader version published on the Institute of Public Relations website on March 19, 2020.
Your inbox got a beating these last couple of weeks from any company or organization that happens to have your email address. Everyone is getting letters about COVID-19 response plans and recommendations as the pandemic sweeps across the US. None of us can honestly say we’ve seen a single crisis with such blanketing impact that compels most every organization to communicate with key stakeholders.
Some camp sessions are already in full swing. But, while the heavy camping season is still many weeks away, government orders and health organization recommendations will likely have a great impact on programming, decision-making, and attendance this summer. How your organization is communicating can mitigate any impact felt both this summer and in subsequent seasons.
A strategically penned letter is critical in setting an effective first impression in crisis response.
With an interest in how letters were constructed, we have been shuttling back and forth the 100-plus that collected in our inboxes. Full disclosure: we’ve also crafted several for clients.
In crisis and issues response, audiences are forming a net impression — a general collection of all the signals sent — with regard to how your organization is responding. They notice speed, tone, brand personality, messaging, specific actions taken, and calls to action. That net impression is the platform for recovery once the crisis has passed or the issue finds some resolution. The letter or statement often is that first impression — something that hardens quickly — of the net impression — something much more fluid throughout the arc of communications.
It needs to be strong. Like all crisis and issues communications, the letter needs to reflect four critical elements: empathy, actions, cooperative efforts, and resolve. The message can be incorporated into any of those elements.
Remember, the letter is about customers — their understanding of the issue and how your actions will impact them. Empathy is critical here . . . and is critical always. It is the key to connection with the audience. How does that customer feel? What is top of mind to them?
- “To say that these times are unprecedented and confusing is an understatement.” — McGaw YMCA (Evanston, Ill.)/Camp Echo
- “The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) may be on many of our minds and as the summer approaches . . . ” – Camp Augusta, Nevada City, California
Empathy may be a shared perspective or experience, but it doesn’t have to be. And your empathy should match where your organization lives in your audiences’ minds.
Second, ensure you're communicating a critical message that brings focus on how your organization conducts business. If you needed to write a letter with only one sentence, what would it be? Be thoughtful in your word choice, but be declarative. The sentence shouldn’t read like a topic, but as a statement. Don’t assume anything.
- “While we are hopeful that camp will continue uninterrupted . . . the safety and health of our community is of utmost concern.” — Big Lake Youth Camp (Sisters, Oregon)
- “Camp Chatuga understands the seriousness of the COVID-19 health situation.” Camp Chatuga (Mountain Rest, South Carolina)
Actions and cooperative efforts (how the organization is working with authorities or expert partners) need to be demonstrated. The level of specificity in describing these action items will depend on the kind of organization you have.
Organizations like camps need to be much more specific than a Target or United Airlines. The intimacy of the relationship requires it. Names and memories are wrapped up in every communication a facility makes to family members.
- “Our program staff will practice social distance. We will require people don’t share drinks. Our new Western Lodge bathroom facility will give us more than twice as many handwashing stations . . . We (also) will look at the CDC’s recommendations at that time.” — Camp Anokijig (Plymouth, Wisc.) video
- “In the event of an outbreak affecting Camp Rivercrest, we will follow directions as needed from the CDC — as well as state and local agencies — up to and including quarantines of guests, staff, or staff families, and will comply with camp closure if mandated.” — Camp Rivercrest (Fremont, Neb.)
In the end, there may be an opportunity to communicate how the organization is looking beyond its business, or how the audience can play a role beyond CDC and WHO recommendations. Camp Anokijig used their video to answer questions from alumni and supporters about the camp’s financial survival if there are cancelations.
- “It is always a great time to donate to help keep reserves up.” — Camp Anokijig video
Take another look at some of the letters you’ve received. What was it the organization was trying to express? How did that letter set the tone for subsequent communications via email, social channels, or easily found on its website?
In this COVID-19 crisis, most organizations saw a benefit in communicating early with their audiences. Be strategic in your approach and tone no matter the crisis or issue you may face. A strategically penned letter is critical in setting an effective first impression in crisis response.
Ron Culp (Twitter: @Culpwrit) is a veteran corporate and agency executive now serving as professional director of the public relations and advertising program at DePaul University.
Steve Johnson (Twitter: @SJConnects) is a former reporter, corporate PR lead, and agency executive now running his own strategic communications shop SJConnects.