5 Lessons We’ve Learned from Governor Cuomo About Communicating During the COVID-19 Outbreak

March 27, 2020
By Stacy Berns
Originally published on LinkedIn

Photo Credit: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

Anyone who’s seen New York Governor Andrew Cuomo communicate on TV in the past couple of weeks has probably been struck by his communication style: it’s authentic, authoritative, timely and results-oriented. His daily televised news briefings and email updates about the coronavirus situation in New York State are great examples of effective, engaging communications.

As brands and retailers navigate an extremely challenging environment, they can look to what works well for the governor in terms of communicating to help make sure their own messages are as helpful and effective as possible right now.

Below are five things brands and retailers should consider when communicating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Be Authentic

Governor Cuomo’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past few weeks due to his ability to connect with his constituents through authentic storytelling. Recently, he’s named a law protecting at-risk populations after his elderly mother, bantered in an on-air interview with his famous journalist brother and gently teased his 22-year-old daughter while she was seated next to him in an on-camera press conference. He’s a son, a brother and a father—and one of us. Many of us can relate to him and are therefore more likely to find him trustworthy.

Brands and retailers needn’t include family members in C-suite communications, but they should find ways to connect with their customers and other audiences in an authentic way. This may mean establishing consistent communications, sharing stories, setting realistic expectations or admitting that uncertainties exist. Customers in particular don’t always need to hear that things are great—they simply want to know that management is in this with them and is being real.

2. Be Confident

The recent #CuomoForPresident phenomenon is no doubt a result of Governor Cuomo’s confident, authoritative and calming approach to governing and communicating. Brands and retailers need to communicate with their stakeholders in a similarly solid manner.

Everyone knows that the retail industry is under tremendous stress and that tens of millions of jobs have been lost in a matter of days. Business leaders need to communicate to customers, employees and vendors that their company’s management team is staying educated and informed, and that the team will make decisions based on the best information available to them. Everyone appreciates that the dynamic nature of this pandemic makes planning difficult, but for many, simply knowing that management is confidently steering the ship can be comforting.

3. Don’t Be Opportunistic

Photo Credit: Jack Gruber, USA Today.

There is no bigger turn-off than to see politicians take a crisis and turn it into a political game of one-upsmanship. The same applies to brands and retailers.

During this pandemic, brands should stay away from profiteering and read the room—this is not the time to hike prices, make unscientific claims about the supposed immunological properties of a particular product or to promote athleisure wear as the perfect “work from home” option. These kinds of communications risk sounding tone-deaf at best right now, and are actually dangerous to people’s health and well-being in some cases.

What is okay, and in fact helpful right now, is to share news about any brand efforts to help in the fight against COVID-19. LVMH, L’Oréal and Estée Lauder have all announced that they are redirecting resources to produce much-needed hand sanitizer for various countries. Christian Siriano, Brandon Maxwell, Chargeurs, Prada and others have repurposed their teams and materials to produce protective masks and gowns. This is the kind of news that’s great to hear—that brands are providing something useful and needed for the greater good right now.

4. Provide Substance

If you sign up for Governor Cuomo’s daily email update, you’ll receive a message promising to limit communications to substantive updates only. Again, retailers and brands should take note.

Sending an email or sales presentation that simply says “We’re here for you” does nothing to engender trust or convey useful information. It’s better to share insights about the current situation, how it affects your industry in general or your company specifically, and to tailor such communications carefully depending on the intended audience. State your strategies and any corporate changes clearly, concisely and sensitively when you have specific information to share.

5. Timing and Sensitivity Are Everything

Timing communications carefully and conveying sensitivity are also extremely important for brands and retailers during the crisis. People are hyper-focused on their own and their loved ones’ well-being and livelihoods right now. At the same time, they are more keyed in to the lightning-fast news cycle than ever before. Promoting news that’s not related to the pandemic can be seen as insensitive if it fails to acknowledge the current situation or is poorly timed, even unintentionally. Brands and retailers can, and certainly should, continue to tell their own brand stories during this time, but they need to carefully consider each message and its timing to ensure they achieve the desired effect.

Amal Clooney’s sister, Tala Alamuddin has been criticized for selling “luxury” $33 face masks on her website. Photo Credit: Tala Alamuddin Instagram.

One example of getting the timing right is the many brands that have quickly announced they are making generous donations in an effort to combat the spread of the disease or help those impacted by it. This is the kind of news that is appropriate to share immediately. Nike, Kendra Scott, Kenneth Cole and Everlane are just a few of the fashion and apparel brands that have taken action to help others and then shared the uplifting news over the past several weeks. By announcing their charitable actions, these companies are likely to encourage others to follow suit.

There are two other things Governor Cuomo and his communications team are doing particularly well:

they’re keeping it simple and making good use of visual aids during the daily televised press conferences.

In the daily pressers, there’s often a split screen showing the governor speaking on one side and a simple PowerPoint slide on the other, highlighting his main talking points. The slides are easy to read, with a good-sized font that contrasts well against the background color. The language is simple and straightforward, and each slide typically has no more than three or four brief bullet points or a short list of things he’s mentioning at the moment. The slides make it easy to follow along with what the governor is saying, and they’re helpful without being distracting, just as they’re designed to be.

The coronavirus pandemic has created unfamiliar situations for all of us, and communicating appropriately and effectively is more important than ever. Governor Cuomo is giving us all a master class on the art of connecting with people of various audiences right now, and brands and retailers that can communicate with a similar level of authenticity, authority, specificity and sensitivity will be better able to serve customers, employees, vendors and others during this exceptionally difficult time.

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