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  • Writer's pictureDylan Parry

Comms in crisis: Time to get it right

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

So. Everything is weird, but life goes on.

The memes have been good, at lifting my spirits at least. But you had a feeling people’s creativity would rise to the occasion and find another gear. This sports commentator didn’t let us down. Nor this dog owner. Nor, indeed, the person who made this hands-free tap



And people have been making the most of the power of video streaming for everything from museum tours to cookery classes and virtual pub nights. Never have the video calling services been more valuable.


I was working at Wolff Olins during a rebrand of Skype, circa 2009, that saw its proposition articulated as: ‘Doing things together, whenever you’re apart’. I thought we might, in the circumstances, now see Skype and others finding nice ways to assert their value. But there's not much evidence of it, with the exception of Zoom, whose homepage has: 


Meanwhile the crisis emails from all manner of businesses – even those I don't remember having anything to do with – have poured in. There’s something interesting about these for me, as someone who spends a fair amount of time thinking about brand voice. And that is a convergence of tone. 


The message is the same with most, too: ‘We know you’re worried, we’re worried too. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we’re doing what we can.’ The primary tone underpinning it all is reassurance – reassurance that they're taking it seriously and doing what’s needed – mixed with a dose of humility (nobody is claiming to be absolutely on top of this).


Perhaps this convergence shouldn’t be surprising. The ’serious moments’ are always the ones for which tone-of-voice guidelines recommend dialling down the brand personality. With good reason too, because nobody wants to be smothered in branding at such times.

The biggest crises – war, natural disasters…disease – are incredible levellers*. As noted by Zoom, we're all in the same boat and there are only so many perspectives one can take. If your business already defines itself in terms of trust, reassurance, or some shade of committed-ness, those qualities can come to the fore and shine in these times. Other personality traits you might come across in brand guidelines – playful, luxurious, provocative – not so much.


But this convergence of perspective doesn’t mean you should abandon your sense of who you are, or that there’s only one way to craft a message. Far from it. 


There are a host of missteps you can make, and clarity – that frequently undervalued commodity – matters more than ever. Don’t be Boris. Don’t drop sedulously into a message that really (really) needs to be understood by everyone.

Supermarkets too, have slipped up at times. In their haste to announce dedicated shopping hours for the elderly, vulnerable and key workers, several emails have neglected to reassert a key message: that supply chains are fine and panic-buying is unnecessary.


Right now we’re all in reactive mode, but it won’t last. As we adjust to our new reality, the time for more proactive actions and communications will soon be upon us.


Remember, there are loads of talented freelancers out there with the skills to get your message right. Don’t hesitate to reach out to one of us. We’ll be happier than ever to hear from you.



*Since I wrote this article, the BBC's Emily Maitlis and others have rightly argued that COVID-19 is not, in fact, a 'leveller'. Lockdown presents a far bigger challenge for many, including: those people on a low or insecure income; those with underlying health conditions; older people; those facing difficult personal or domestic circumstances; and children who unable to study effectively at home. I fully support this point of view. What I should have said is 'the biggest crises affect us all'.


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