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COVID-19 Messaging: 5 Key Considerations

COVID-19 has challenged all of us to be exceptionally quick and focused with our communications. Fortunately, experts across industries have never been more generous with sharing insights into the best ways to communicate to audiences about how to keep themselves and others safe.

I recently tuned into OpenIDEO’s webinar on communication and behavior change during the time of COVID-19, where experts across tech and philanthropy shared insights based on the following question: “How might we rapidly inform and empower communities around the world to stay safe and healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak?”

The webinar introduced and validated some key messaging tips that resonated with my experience working as a strategist at the Ad Council and as someone with a background in public health. Below are my top five takeaways that all communicators should consider when crafting messages related to COVID-19.

1. Understand a person’s emotional arc and then nudge them toward a more positive experience.

When COVID-19 first became a prominent threat to Americans, people initially experienced inward-focused concerns—fear for themselves and their inner circle—as evidenced by the panic buying of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. However, over time, as people started to become more comfortable with the new reality of social distancing, they shifted from looking inward to looking outward to consider how they could help and support others. This is where we’ve seen the emergence of countless stories of kindness that give us hope and make us feel more united. As Americans become more hopeful and less worried as they settle into their “new normal,” it may be an opportune time to help edge them towards behaviors that support others.

Most COVID-19 related messages have focused on passive actions, like staying home. However, people want to feel like they’re actively doing something in order to feel fulfilled. And helping is one of the most effective ways to give people a sense of agency and purpose. Some brands, like Lowe’s , have tapped into this desire to help by giving their consumers ways to express gratitude from home. This new app also empowers homebound users to help track the spread of COVID-19 simply by logging how they feel daily, even if unrelated to COVID-19 symptoms.

2. Encourage people to do meaningful things actively.

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Artisans, makers and craftspeople took #BuildThanks to new heights, using their skills to make amazing signs of hope for essential workers. @angelarosehome created an 8-ft interactive sign to show her appreciation for frontline workers. • Here’s how you could create your own: 1️⃣: Use spare Eucaboard or plywood and paint surface with chalk paint; Let it dry overnight. 2️⃣: Screw surface to a frame made from 2x4s (8 ft x 8 ft). 3️⃣: Grab scrap plastic and cut down strips to 4 ft long. 4️⃣: Using a straight edge, draw lines to make the heart shape and cut with a jigsaw. 5️⃣: Insert plastic strips into the cuts on the surface. 6️⃣: Stencil “Thank You” using a pencil, marker, etc. and paint the letters white. 7️⃣: Grab some chalk and write kind messages to frontline workers! • For more #BuildThanks project inspiration to take to your shop, head over to our stories! . . . . #lowes #diy #makers

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The days where people turn to celebrities for guidance are changing. Even most young people , who are typically reachable through influencers, aren’t turning to online influencers for news about COVID-19. “We’re in this together” messages from the rich and famous have at times been met with criticism , making audiences less receptive to their intended messages. However, from this pandemic, a new breed of influencers have emerged— healthcare workers , public health experts , and activists have won people’s respect and attention, making them highly relevant messengers during this time.

3. Say less, say it from the heart, and emphasize shared humanity.

COVID-19 may be scary and complex, but in New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo is a great model for how to effectively communicate about protecting yourself and others. His messages are simple, they express empathy, and in talking about his brother who was battling COVID-19, he demonstrated shared humanity by emphasizing what flattening the curve means for his family and what it means for us all.

4. Most of us working in the advertising industry have privilege in some way. Be sure to check yours as you communicate with others.

It’s easy to stay home when you can work remotely or when you have the financial means of stocking up on food. But many people, especially those who are systemically marginalized, do not have those privileges. The recommendation to wear a mask may seem simple to white Americans, but for Black or Asian folks, it could invite risk. For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, masks can further isolate them. As communicators, it’s vitally important to always check our own privilege by thinking about how our audience will perceive our message and find approaches that are sensitive to their lived experience.

5. Audiences are looking to people who are influential rather than people who are famous.

We may be living in an unprecedented time, but these recommendations can help us be better communicators not only now, but also after the pandemic is over. As we navigate this new normal, not all our COVID-19 messaging will be perfect. What’s most important is our willingness to listen, to learn and to make sure our audiences’ lived experiences are respected.


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