Summary of JJ&W’s WEbinar for PRSA: External Communication with Stakeholders During Covid-19

What is known about how humans process risk and crisis remind us that not every member of a stakeholder group is at the same point in their understanding, acceptance, processing or action steps.  In fact, most are likely ricocheting daily, if not hourly, between these waypoints as they deal with the mental and emotional toll that the all-consuming change that is COVID19 has taken on their lives.  Today they may feel positive and productive.  Tomorrow they may not.

How we deliver the messages that need to be communicated, the words we use, and the environment in which messages are received must be carefully calibrated to resonate with our stakeholders. They must take into consideration their values and their current emotional state.  They must be clear enough to motivate specific behaviors.

Thus, we move to the lowest common denominators when preparing communication:

  1. Use simpler, more direct language
  2. Elevate empathy
  3. Include doable action steps

Simpler, more direct language   Write at a 7th or 8th grade level (see Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests). Even the most educated have problems processing ideas when things are stressful or there is upheaval. Say what needs to be said in the simplest way possible – short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. 

Elevate empathy   Express shared emotions without telling them how they feel.  “We are all anxious” is different then “We know you are anxious”.

Doable action steps:  Suggest something they can do as a result of your communication.  “Make a donation”, “call a friend”, “read on our website” are all actionable ideas.  With no call to action, your messaging is just a big “so what”. For example,  COVID19 communication now has plenty of “calls to action”, including:  “maintain a 6-feet-apart social distance when out in public”; “wash your hands for 20 seconds” and “stay at home unless you are an essential worker or you have to get gas, groceries or pharmacy items.”

In addition, don’t make stakeholders work to find your messaging or create additional “new” vehicles to communicate.  That is just another stress on them.  Use the channels they are comfortable with, used to using, and trust.

Finally, monitor the environment for ongoing changes that might make your communication insensitive if not offensive.  This requires being flexible on how you choose to communicate and constantly monitoring the environment for potential message conflicts.

For instance, the cruise lines for too long continued to run ads and send mailing that promoting trips.  The hotel industry was slow on the uptake as well. Some smaller organizations, perhaps being nimbler or more empathetic, switch gears faster e.g. Planet Fitness suspended monthly fees right away and ramped up their online platform to encourage continued activity.  Compare that with Boston Health Club (see good reading on that one see Robin Schell’s last blog)! 

Stay well!

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA
Senior Counsel & Partner, Jackson Jackson & Wagner

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A Case Study In How NOT To Build Relationships With Customers: Boston Sports Clubs

Here’s what happens when you are NOT proactive and DON’T LISTEN to customers … I’m afraid Boston Sports Clubs are about to learn a painful PR lesson.  

While many gyms communicated proactively to customers that they would be halting billing and freezing memberships, Boston Sports Clubs went out of their way to make it nearly impossible for members to cancel memberships and freeze accounts during the COVID19 closure period.  A few weeks after closing, they sent an email to customers letting them know that when they re-open, they will work with members on credit arrangements.  They did not, however, provide any options for stopping payment while they remain closed.  As a result, they find themselves in the following boat:

  • Angry customers are blowing up BSC’s Facebook page with complaints
  • A class action suit filed against parent company Town Sports International, alleging it is impossible to cancel memberships
  • In Massachusetts, multiple complaints have been filed with the AG’s office and they are now investigating
  • Local media covering the story and suggesting members who want out of their memberships call their credit card company to cancel payments. 
  • Media have asked for personal stories about member experiences with BSC, indicating this negative press is far from over

In visiting the FB page of the local BSC, I found many negative comments about the rudeness of staff and dirty condition of the gym. BSC uses the same impersonal response every time:

Boston Sports Clubs We appreciate you taking the time to review our club. We’re very sorry for the issues you have experienced and we’d like to follow up with you personally. If you could email HereToHelp@tsiclubs.com, a member of the Customer Services team will get back to you shortly. Thank you for reaching out. Best, The HereToHelp Team

BSC fails to realize that this is a time to “serve not sell” your customers, not take advantage of them.   When gym members are being forced out of their normal behavior routine of going to the gym and are finding alternatives (exercising outdoors, constructing home gym setups, live streaming yoga classes), they should be finding ways to excite members about coming back, not drive them away.   Clearly BSC did not study their competitor’s policies or look at some of the creative ways other gyms are using their space to serve the public and build relationships with members (https://www.patriotledger.com/news/20200331/quincy-ymca-to-serve-as-secondary-homeless-shelter). 

All of this could have been avoided with some proactive communication and customer-friendly policies.  Lesson shared!

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