At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies were searching for appropriate ways to be wisely sensitive about what to say and how to say it. Yes, time has passed, but guess what? We are still in the middle of a pandemic. As of this writing, the U.S. is at a 14.7 percent unemployment rate and we’ve lost more than 100,000 lives and counting. Words still matter.

When it comes to communications, “reading the room” is always important. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s paramount during a crisis event. Companies that understand current state of affairs, empathize with and speak directly to their customers with authenticity get noticed in the right way. Most importantly, brands that craft and deliver the right content through the right channels, especially during challenging times, have a stronger chance of remaining market leaders.

As 2020 got underway, companies found themselves – in real time – pivoting their messaging to customers, stakeholders and the public. Many succeeded; others struggled.

Take, for example, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). In late February, KFC launched in the UK and Ireland a refreshed “Finger Lickin’ Good” campaign, that consisted of diners licking their fingers clean – shot after shot for a full minute. The global fast food juggernaut found itself suddenly “tone deaf” with its iconic campaign, due to the coronavirus that was rapidly spreading through Europe. More than 150 people complained to the U.K.’s advertising review board, putting KFC’s reputation on the line. Consequently, KFC pulled the campaign.

Today as businesses across the U.S. and the world begin to reopen, many indeed are adjusting their brand message to account for the “new normal.” Take, for example, Caribou Coffee. Managers foresaw a possible misstep in messaging with an inspirational quote on its coffee sleeves.  The quote in question: “Fight the Urge to Remain Indoors.” Workers removed the sleeves from circulation, and others creatively altered them by crossing out “Fight the Urge to” so instead it read “Remain Indoors.” Smart, quick and effective actions that paid off for Caribou Coffee and turned something potentially damaging into a, dare we say, slightly humorous situation?

Taking down a “tone deaf” campaign and acting quickly can help thwart a negative PR situation, but companies should strongly consider tone from the planning phase.

So, how can you be more Caribou, less Chicken?

Here are three things to keep in mind for your next PR campaign in the midst of a pandemic, or any other crisis situation:

ONE: Take a Moment to Take Stock

  • Evaluate everything: your visual brand, your customers’ reality at this moment and your tone of voice.
  • Assess your corporate messaging from a new perspective: one that currently revolves around record-breaking unemployment, consumer spend uncertainty and overall unknown of what the world will be like on the other side of this pandemic.
  • As we have mentioned before, now is the time to pivot: Be smart about the message you are putting out there. Make sure it is sensitive to the current situation, takes into account your customers’ concerns, is honest and transparent.

TWO: Authenticity is Paramount
Be authentic, if nothing else. And this does not mean simply restating the sentiment: “We understand your situation during these uncertain times” because everyone else is using it.

  • Have a clear, realistic understanding of your customers’ situation: Stop leveraging COVID-19 to sell and start communicating with facts, solutions and compassion. The reality is this just might not be the time to sell your product or service. If you choose to put profit over people, your brand will suffer long after this pandemic. Do what’s right, now, for your customers and they will do right by you in the future.

THREE: Get Personal
Speak, and market, directly to your customers.

  • Throw away the cookie cutter: Stop generic campaigns and execute personalized 1:1 PR. Audit your audience and create channel campaigns that specifically speak to each group and how you can best support them during this time. Your customers want advocates, not pushy sales offers flooding their inbox. Car manufacturers have done this well.

The New Normal
Remember, COVID-19 is an unprecedented pandemic – the news is changing daily and people are rightly concerned. Be empathetic. Focus on strengthening your relationship with your customers. Be authentic. Even well-meaning companies could collapse under the weight of a tone-deaf message or campaign. While much remains uncertain, we know this for sure: it’s time to throw out your existing PR playbook and get creative, personal and genuine with your campaigns.