COVID Impact: Scheduled Communications.

This past week, Ole Miss sent an email encouraging its alumni network to name the university as a beneficiary in their wills. The timing could not have been worse. That email, in light of the global pandemic and the growing national death toll, was universally, rightfully, and brutally mocked on social media and in online outlets. So what went wrong? Rather than assuming that sending the email was just a terrible judgment call (though asking to be included in a will is never a comfortable conversation), let’s examine the far more likely reality. That email was probably a scheduled communication, drafted in recent weeks, that’s been waiting in a queue. In the midst of a crisis, an idea in an editorial calendar becomes a potential PR scandal without the proper adjustments. Miraculously, PR scandals throughout the COVID-19 outbreak have been few and far between. Most organizations recognize the gravity of the situation and are being careful and strategic in their internal and external communications. The faux pas, as Ole Miss’s error demonstrates, are more likely to be caused by carelessness and oversights, not ignorance or callousness. Other companies should take note of this mistake and learn from it. If you are responsible for an organization’s corporate communications, fundraising emails, or social media channels, take this opportunity to audit whatever communications you have planned and make sure they follow these guidelines:
  1. Don’t Ask for Money: Americans are worried about losing their jobs and watching their investments’ value fluctuate on a daily basis. People don’t know whether they will be able to afford their mortgage, much less maintain or increase their annual pledges. If you solicit donations during this time of unprecedented uncertainty, you will appear out of touch and insensitive to your audience’s struggles.
  2. Remove All Mentions of Events and Gatherings: Scheduled communications often revolve around or mention annual touchpoints and events. Schools will mention graduations and reunions, nonprofits will reference galas and annual fundraisers, and so on. The nature of COVID-19 has unfortunately forced most of those events to cancel—and we encourage developing a comms strategy for that announcement—but you should avoid referencing those events in other materials.
  3. Carefully Choose Your Words: COVID-19 has changed what language is considered appropriate. Terms like “viral” and “spread like wildfire”—which were commonly used by the general public—have become insensitive and inappropriate, and likely will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Go through your planned communications and review the copy with a fine-toothed comb.
Many large organizations plan their content weeks or even months in advance, and there was no way anyone could predict how widespread and impactful COVID-19 would be. That being said, those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the communications industry don’t know how long a lead time some of these materials have. And they won’t be forgiving when companies fail to tailor their materials to the crisis at hand.


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