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How to Communicate in a Crisis

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How to Communicate in a Crisis

Community action, a clear brand voice, and empathetic communication are key tactics to let people know where you stand and what to expect


By Annie Cebulski June 23, 2020
A businessman sitting at a desk using a laptop crafts crisis messaging for his business
Email, press releases, social media posts, and community outreach are all tools builders can use to communicate with homebuyers during national and local emergencies, but timing and content are key. | Photo: Damir Khabirov | Adobe Stock

Just when home builders thought things were finally looking up after a decade-plus of industry recovery, the nation was hit with two concurrent crises in the first quarter of 2020: the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide reaction to police brutality and institutionalized racism sparked by the death of George Floyd.

Besides internally managing changing workflows, supply chains, and economic perils, builders have had to grapple with how to address these crises externally with their buyers, partners, and communities. Clear, empathetic, and timely communication can help home builders strengthen their brand and support their buyer communities, but actually executing that strategy is easier said than done when circumstances change by the minute. 

 

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Lasting Impressions

Email messages, press releases, social media posts, and community outreach are all tools home builders can use to communicate with buyers during national and local emergencies, but determining the timing and content of the messages is even more important than the method itself.

“What’s happening today and for the next few months will be remembered by all stakeholders,” says Lewis Goldberg, managing partner at New York-based KCSA Strategic Communications, in a webinar by Cision, a public relations and earned media software company. “If you’re not empathetic, if you’re not communicating effectively through multiple channels, and you’re not being transparent, not only are you going to be punished as a brand today, but you’re going to be punished tomorrow.”

4 Phases for Crisis Communications

During the pandemic, Cision emphasizes four phases for crisis communications:

1. Detection: Crisis is brought to the company’s attention

2. Preparation and prevention: Majority of communications are coronavirus-related

3. Containment, mitigation, and damage control: Allowance for non-coronavirus–related news is increased

4. Recovery and repair: Focus shifts to moving forward and the positive outcomes of the crisis, if any

Company Values and Messaging

No business could have fully prepared for the scope of the coronavirus or the unrest stemming from police brutality. Although the California-based The New Home Company had a crisis management plan prior to the pandemic, it still had to adapt day by day as the situation unfolded. Joan Webb, the builder’s chief marketing officer, says her department’s guiding star was to be appropriately sensitive and avoid tone deafness while staying visible to homebuyers and the community. To achieve this, the company switched gears from selling homes to supporting what Webb calls the “New Home Family.”

“We quickly adapted our messaging to 'We're here,’ and if you need our assistance, ‘We’re here for you,’” Webb says. “But we weren’t going to market to the public during the crisis.”

One of the best ways to guide messaging is to reflect on company ideals, according to Alyssa Titus, marketing director for Schell Brothers, a home builder in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Ask “What is your mission? What’s important to you?” Titus says. “Once you figure that out, it’s easier to layer out what you do or don’t support on social media and your tone.” For her company, that approach means adhering to its guidelines of spreading happiness and incorporating community outreach. 

Alaina Money-Garman, founder and CEO of Garman Homes, in Cary, N.C., felt that messaging on the pandemic and the nationwide protests was necessary to uphold her company’s values. She brainstormed with her team to develop messages that fit the company’s manifestos of “We are each other’s keepers” and “We will never make space for hate.” 

Because Garman Homes is a small, privately owned new-home builder, Money-Garman says she had the freedom to really tailor the messages to align with her own convictions. Not every home builder has that luxury, but even publicly traded brands can benefit from striving to be authentic. 

“My advice is to get as far away from a corporate voice and as close to a human one as you can,” Money-Garman says. “Set the tone of your company as close to a living, breathing, loving voice within what your leadership structure will allow.” 

5 Strategies for Crisis Messaging From Communications Pros

1. Be nimble, quick, and ready to adapt

2. Build on previous frameworks

3. Avoid tone deafness. Be authentic

4. Use social media to your advantage

5. Back it up with action and sharpen your listening skills

1. Be nimble, quick, and ready to adapt

Communication in the digital age is already fast, but in a crisis, home builders must be even faster at identifying, crafting, and delivering the right messages. 

“When we started really delving into a shift in communication style during the pandemic, it showed us that we had to be really nimble and lighting fast,” Webb says. “It can’t be three days to get a message. Look how life has changed so significantly in a couple of weeks.”

To keep abreast of what kind of messaging The New Home Company should be pursuing, Webb meets daily with Megan Eltringham, New Home’s VP of marketing, to strategize. Eltringham then crafts daily and weekly messaging. When things normalize, the team will no longer have to dedicate daily check-ins to crisis messaging. Instead, they may phase into conversations that happen weekly. 

Webb says that shift will happen organically as they continue to monitor the situation, but feels they are not there yet. “I see bumpy roads for the short term,” Webb says. “But I would say we’re going to be very cognizant of our messaging as we move through the rest of the year.

2. Build on previous frameworks

“Consider revisiting content you’ve planned or produced pre-pandemic to see if it can be used now with some reworking,” Cision says in its e-book, "The Next Step: Adapting Your Comms Strategy in Challenging Times.” “Perhaps an updated introduction or a change in messaging to make it fit with current events.”

Schell Brothers already had the groundwork set for community outreach and incorporating virtual tools into its business model, according to Titus. The Project Kudos bus, which is used to spread encouragement and happiness in normal times, was converted into a food delivery bus for families in need in Schell’s community. The company also converted 17 of its billboards along Delaware’s Coastal Highway to display positive messages for the community and health care workers. 

 

Crisis Comms Schell Brothers Bus Project Kudos
Schell Brothers' Project Kudos bus has been converted into a food delivery bus during the pandemic to help families in need. | Photo: courtesy Schell Brothers

 

3. Avoid tone deafness. Be authentic

The right message today may be tone deaf tomorrow. “While the subject matter of the pandemic remains extremely serious, audiences are tired of the same rhetoric from brands and communicators about how we are ‘all in this together’ during this ‘unprecedented time,’” Cision says in its e-book, adding “The messaging used in the first days and weeks of the outbreak needs to shift into a new space, without shifting into tone-deaf or alienating territory.” 

As the pandemic continues, home builders should strategize about how to best shift the tone of their messaging to reflect the current economic climate and any current events that could affect how the message is received—what is inappropriate in one phase of the crisis may actually be well received later. 

“At first, we were just managing the crisis and getting the most up-to-date information out to homeowners and to our prospective buyers,” Titus says. “Now, as we’re running through this, it’s like ‘Hey, we know this world is not quite normal, but we've learned how to navigate in it, and you can buy a home with us any way you feel safe and fit doing so.”

Recently, Schell Brothers launched campaigns revolving around working from home and starting fresh, stating that buyers can “Make Delware your new normal.”

“We can work from home now, why not make it here at the beach?” Titus says. By incorporating marketing messages with coronavirus-related content, the company can begin shifting back into full-power mode—just in time for the strong June rebound reported by home builders and real estate agents alike. 

4. Use social media to your advantage

“To ensure that the strategy you’re crafting is the right one, you’ll need to have monitoring in place,” Cision says in its e-book. “Social media is a great place for this, since it’s where many brand strategists take the pulse of an industry.”

In order to get homebuyers to buy into virtual tools, Schell Brothers launched social media marketing campaigns featuring homeowners’ experiences. “We had a couple homeowners who were guinea pigs and we did testimonials with them so they could talk about their real, authentic experience for other people who may be concerned,” Titus says. “We did a ton of videos and marketing saying, ‘Hey, we have virtual tools for you to embrace.” 

Titus says the response was positive, and the builder even sold a few homes to people without them ever stepping foot in them. 

Besides posting on social media, it’s also important to tailor content to the specific platform. When Money-Garman decided to speak out about the Black Lives Matter movement, she posted on both Instagram and her personal LinkedIn page, which she says acts as a business page for the company, but the functions of the posts differed. Money-Garman’s Instagram post was succinct, in order to allow space for other voices, while on LinkedIn, she linked to an article on 75 things non-minority people can do for racial justice.

“LinkedIn is about personal development, so that post was about me personally developing awareness and education,” Money-Garman says. “For Instagram, it was about ensuring no one was left wondering what our business thought about what was happening.” 

5. Back it up with action and sharpen your listening skills

It’s one thing to say something, but for crisis messaging to come across as authentic, home builders must follow up with concrete action, whether that’s community outreach, developing useful tools for clients, or internal training. 

Titus says Schell Brothers focused on providing community support that extended from its already robust relationship with local communities. In addition to the Project Kudos bus food distribution effort, employees held a fundraiser for in-need families, rounding up essential items including toilet paper. Using a text-messaging platform, Schell also reached out to its community of homeowners to support small local businesses, often spotlighting companies’ specials and discounts to help drum up business. 

"Every company has to find their own voice. Our company decided to give our space on social media to promote and educate." —Joan Webb, chief marketing officer, The New Home Company

While direct action is great, sometimes an effective strategy is to listen. When the Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd erupted worldwide, The New Home Company decided to go dark for seven to 10 days on social media accounts to give space to voices that needed to be heard. “Every company has to find their own voice,” Webb says. “Our company decided to give our space on social media to promote and educate.” 

Instead of crafting an official statement, The New Home Company decided to turn inward and begin focusing on what Webb calls significant shifts in the company to achieve three goals: 

1. Diversity in the workforce

2. Educating the team on systemic racism

3. Improving work culture and sensitivity to all diversity, including race, gender orientation, and faith. 

“We don’t want to just talk about it,” Webb says. “We want to do it.”

 

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