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Nothing is status quo during the COVID-19 pandemic, including how you communicate

By Chris Duffy

May 14, 2020

Roughly a month out from the 2020 tax deadline, our entire country changed suddenly with the full-blown arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like thousands of other professions, COVID-19 has seriously shaken the accounting industry, bringing with it an increasingly murky economic outlook and dramatically altering the way people do their jobs.
I imagine many of your professional lives since mid-March have been spent figuring out what your new normal looks like and determining how you can best serve your clients. When we all collectively experience something as unanticipated and life changing as our current public health crisis, many people’s understandable instinct is to put their head down and do their job like they did before, mimicking the former status quo.
While it is important to pause and take stock of your changed work reality, it is equally as important to reflect on how you’ve been communicating with the people most important to your business. What do your clients, colleagues and other stakeholders need to hear from you? Silence, however unintentional, can create mystery and heighten anxiety in times of crisis; when people aren’t hearing from you, they often assume the worst. If there’s any time to double down on communicating, it’s now.
Do a communications gut check. Take five minutes to audit yourself and reflect on whether you’ve communicated with the audiences most important to you lately and, if so, how. Have you had honest, transparent conversations about how COVID-19 impacts what you do and the services you provide? If you find that there have been any gaps in connecting with people or can identify opportunities for improvement, make those a priority today.
What’s unique about this situation is that it’s happening to everyone, but each person is experiencing it in different capacities. As such, determining what you want to communicate, when and to whom should be done with special care and intention. Your communication should have three important elements: empathy, forward-thinking advice and positivity.

Communicate with empathy

The impact of this historic pandemic is very real. When approaching any type of communication with your clients, customers or colleagues, remember to lead with empathy. Failing to acknowledge the human hardships of this moment will sound tone deaf and accomplish the opposite of what you intend. People often aren’t ready to receive messages unless their emotions are addressed first.

Be forward-looking

You do not need to have all the answers in order to be a good communicator. Pretending to have a solution and know everything during a crisis period when, realistically, not even our highest-ranking leaders can guarantee the world’s outcome is actually harmful to the rapport you’ve already built with your audiences — your credibility will be damaged, and people may have a harder time trusting you.
It’s OK to admit that you don’t know what the future holds — nobody does! Acknowledging uncertainty is OK and lends itself well to a strong, honest message. You can also speak to what you do know. Are there any confirmed facts or updates that you’re aware of and can share? Are you seeing certain trend lines that you can provide insight about? If so, deliver that information with confidence. 

Embrace the facts, but be positive

When crafting communications to your audiences, remember to be as transparent as possible; people are craving honest, intelligent information that’s not dipped in a sugar coating of false promises. That said, there’s also an acute need for positivity in our world. Putting out a business communication that’s riddled with statements of alarm and negativity is not productive — people can get that by reading news headlines and don’t need to hear it from you.
You can strike a balance between the intelligence of honesty and the relief of positivity, whatever that looks like to you. By including some much-needed optimism in your message of accurate, empathetic and honest information, communicating with the audiences most important to you will strengthen your relationships and help you get through these moments of crises together.
Chris Duffy is the vice president of public relations at Goff Public, a Saint Paul-based public relations and public affairs firm. You can find him on Twitter @cmduffy.