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Communicating with Constituents During the Coronavirus Crisis

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

As a crisis communications specialist, I have been talking with nonprofit organizations in the past few days about how to communicate with their constituents in these challenging times. It is a tightrope walk to let your supporters know that you need help without looking like you’re capitalizing on the situation or being insensitive to the economic hardships that many Americans and people around the world are experiencing.

Yesterday, I received an email from a beloved nonprofit that I have been involved with since I was 18 years old. They had been engaged in a fundraising effort that involved getting into teams and donating as a competition. The email opened by acknowledging the COVID-19 crisis, but then transitioned to promoting the competition. It had a very peppy tone, asked if your team will win and gave instructions on how to be crowned the 2020 champion. It encouraged people to “brag" about their team and its fundraising progress on social media and provided a hashtag.

Here’s the thing about the email: Under normal circumstances, it was perfectly written. In a worldwide crisis where people are in fear for their lives and their livelihoods, the email seemed tone deaf.

While I often blog about doing business with Millennials and Gen Z, when it comes to crisis communications, there are some general rules of thumb, no matter whom you are trying to reach, because human reactions to fear are universal and expectable.

What follows is not an exhaustive list, but they are some broad guidelines that are good to practice right now:

  1. Acknowledge the crisis and the impact it is having on your constituents.

  2. Be transparent about the impact it is having on your organization and what you’re doing to keep the doors open.

  3. Make the ask or present your message in a straightforward way.

  4. Be extra sensitive to tone. It is best to be assuring and factual, don’t be overly cheerful or use hard-sales tactics.

Our most fundamental human needs (health and financial security) are being challenged right now, which means fear is high and rational thinking is low (thank you, reptilian brain). In a worldwide situation like this, where countries are closing borders and asking citizens to stay inside for weeks or more, it is time to pull together. Messages that promote unity and integrity are going to be better received than those that promote competition and divisiveness.

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