If there’s one thing we can agree on right now, it’s that messaging and communication over the past few months regarding COVID-19 has been anything but consistent.
As a professional communicator, it can make you shake your head.
Let’s take the messaging regarding wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the virus as an example. When all this started back in March, we heard from the CDC that it wasn’t necessary to wear a mask.
Somewhere along the line, that message changed to, “Yes, you SHOULD be wearing a mask when you go out.”
Has this caused confusion? (Yes.) Does everyone understand what they’re supposed to do? (No.) And even if the directive has now changed, does that mean that everyone will adhere to the new guidelines? (Definitely not.) Have some people – because of the confusion and mixed messages – simply given up on even trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do? (Undoubtedly yes.)
What’s the point, you may ask?
The Importance of Clear, Consistent Messaging To Get Your Audience to Act
All this has me thinking about the importance of consistent messaging. In my work with clients, they’ll often hear me tell them they should be consistent in their messaging. If you’re continually changing your tagline or boilerplate, for example, your audience will never be clear about what it is you do.
“With different messages coming from varying levels of the government, Americans can be left feeling there are few reliable answers about what precautions they should take or a clear sense of whether things are under control,” says The New York Times.
This may be why some feel it’s OK to gather in groups and resume “normal” levels of activities – while others continue to remain at home and wear a mask when they need to venture out.
Without a clear, consistent message, uncertainty reigns. This creates anxiety – and fear.
Clear communication, on the other hand, builds trust and helps your audience to understand your message and what action you want them to take.
“Audiences need a message that they can rally around,” says author and storyteller Bob Batchelor, @CultPopCulture. “Inconsistency introduces uncertainty, doubt, and fear. In difficult times, storytelling that is consistent – even if it’s a challenging message – gives people the mental space to reflect and consider the context.”
Confusion is never a way for a small business to run a marketing program – or any type of messaging campaign.
People don’t have the time to figure out what it is you’re trying to say, let alone take the desired action.
In the context of B2B marketing, what are you likely to do if you’re unable to determine a brand’s message? If you’re like many buyers, you simply make no decision. Or you move on to the next vendor.
We could make the case that what the CDC and our government needed more than anything to help combat the virus was a consistent message that was clear to the masses. Directives that explained exactly what each of us should be doing during this time would’ve eliminated a lot of confusion – and chaos. Instead, the federal, state and local governments have been sending mixed messages throughout this period, which leaves it up to every individual to listen to the advice they prefer and make up their own minds about what precautions to take. This puts everyone at risk.
“Past pandemics, and simulations conducted by the federal government to prepare for new ones, all teach the same lesson: Having clear, consistent and regular communication with the public is essential to managing any infectious disease outbreak,” says The New York Times piece.
Another element needed in communications? Simplicity.
Lucy Jones is the subject of this Los Angeles Times piece. “Jones has learned from her longtime role as a disaster communicator that in a crisis, you can’t give people a list of dozens of measures to take for their safety. If you do, you might well overwhelm. Overwhelmed, people often toss up their hands and say, I can’t do all you’re asking of me, and so I’ll do nothing at all.”
The piece goes on to say, “They stopped trying to keep track of the changing advice. They tuned out. They walked away — unmasked — from all of it.”
Business Lessons to Learn
This is not only about the pandemic – but let’s take a lesson for our businesses from it if we can.
Sending inconsistent messages creates challenges across the board. If people don’t understand what it is you want them to do, they may make up their own path. People don’t know what to do – so they do nothing. Wouldn’t it be better if you guided them down a path you wanted them to travel?
The need for clear, consistent communication is greater than ever. How can we do a better job of this?
1) Develop clear messaging for your business, product or service. What messages do you want to convey? Why are they important? If your message is too lengthy, disorganized, or is full of jargon or errors, it’ll likely be misunderstood and misinterpreted – it might even make your recipient confused or angry. Hire a communications consultant if you need help.
2) Use consistent messages across your communications channels. Make sure your entire team understands the messaging and is using it throughout their communications efforts. Coordinate with partners and collaborators to ensure everyone is using the same messaging.
3) Communicate often. Some messages need to be delivered repeatedly to sink in. Have a schedule for at least some of your communications. Do you send out an email or publish a newsletter every week on the same day? Stick to that schedule as much as possible. In times of crisis, you may need to communicate more frequently with your customers. Otherwise, they may fear the worst.
4) Listen to any feedback your audience may be trying to give you. If they indicate they don’t understand what you’re trying to convey, you may need to change the messaging. Maybe it’s too complicated and you need to simplify it.
5) Revisit your messaging periodically to ensure it’s still on brand and consistent. Has anything shifted that might cause you to rethink your messaging?
Are You Being Clear?
Now more than ever, we need clarity from brands and organizations – let’s learn from this example of failed communication, if we can, that when you don’t take the time to develop a clear message and consistently deliver that message, confusion may take over.
A confused prospect is one that may be likely to throw up their hands – and look elsewhere for a solution to their pain points.
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About the author: You’ll find Michelle Garrett at the intersection of PR, content marketing and social media. As a public relations and communications consultant, content creator, blogger, speaker and freelance writer, Michelle’s articles and advice have been featured in Entrepreneur, Forbes, Muck Rack, Ragan’s PR Daily, Meltwater, ThomasNet, Attorney at Work, FairyGodBoss, Freelancers Union and more. Michelle was also named a Top Digital PR Leader in 2020 and her blog was named to the list of Top 25 Must-Read Public Relations Blogs.