Brands: Stop with the well-meaning COVID-19 emails

The influx of emails in the past week has been brands' version of queuing at the supermarket for a pack of toilet paper, Hamish Cargill says. You don’t need to do it, but since everyone else is, you feel obliged to join in.

Last week, rather than working productively, half of Australia’s white-collar workforce spent their week working from home ploughing through an inbox full of well-meaning emails from every brand they’ve ever engaged with.

It was, to use the word of 2020, an ‘unprecedented’ waste of the nation’s time. Time that could be better spent making hand sanitiser, or finding the ideal Zoom angle.

And it wasn’t just the readers’ time. Consider the process behind the development of these emails, from first draft through to the 17-person scrum of earnest folks across legal and corporate comms who had to approve every wasted word.

It started with the Woolworths email

Like coronavirus, it started slowly and in one place. An email from Woolworths’ CEO Brad Banducci the previous Friday:

“These remain challenging times and with the situation evolving, I’d like to share what Woolworths is doing to support our customers, team members and the community.”

What followed was an important message of reassurance about what Woolies is doing to address the rush in their stores, and the shortage of stock. Empathetic, caring, detailed – it laid things out clearly, giving answers to questions people were actually asking.

Over that weekend, the corporate comms teams of Australia must have all agreed the Woolworths email was good, because they started copying it immediately. By Tuesday, every organisation in Australia had a team behind the keyboards creating their own version of that email.

Here’s the basic structure.

Dear Hamish,

[Show empathy and care]

In these uncertain and challenging times, our focus is on protecting the health, wellbeing and safety of our people and customers.

[Demonstrate that you’re aware of the fact you really know as little as anyone else]

The COVID-19 situation continues to evolve rapidly. As we all continue to navigate through these unprecedented times, we want you to know that [insert brand] is here for you.

[Say something about how your organisation has dealt with hard times before]

In [insert years in business], we’ve stood up to many challenges. While this may be the most serious yet, we want you to know it will not get in the way of our commitment to providing you with the service you expect.

[Preach a little about the value of community]

By coming together as a community, we can navigate these waters and help those most vulnerable with generosity and kindness.

[Make lightweight point about business continuity]

This week, we made the responsible decision to close our [office/ factory/ warehouse] for the health of our people and customers. We are an agile, close-knit and collaborative organisation, and our team have made a seamless transition to working from home.

[Subtly tout for business]

Our expert team stand ready to help you with [insert product or service], in the same safe and secure way you’ve come to expect.

[Finish on a personal note and be a bit bossy]

Our thoughts are with you and your family as we navigate these uncertain times.

We encourage you to be aware of how you can avoid contributing to the spread, listening to the recommendations set by the authorities.

Take care and be kind.

Let me say now that, in principle, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with connecting with your contact list. In fact, at times like this, you should be connecting with them.

But most of these emails have been unnecessarily long, wordy, and undisciplined.

Most critically, few of them had a point to make. The rush to communicate over the past week has been the business version of queuing at the supermarket for a pack of toilet paper. You don’t need any, but since everyone else is jostling for space, you feel obliged to join in.

In the face of this sort of challenge, it’s more important than ever for organisations to distinguish themselves. Resist the temptation to join the herd, and deliver the difference that’s given you this hard-earned audience in the first place. Stay focused on the fact that words aren’t free. You’re only granted a limited quota in the minds of your audience, so be sure to use them wisely – in a way that benefits your customer first, and your organisation next.

So, before you flood the nation’s inboxes, consider what it is you actually have to say. Why is it important for your mailing list to hear from you at this time? What relevant information do you have to convey? And how can you add value to their lives when all around them the noise is overwhelming?

Finally, match the tone of your words to the time, but deliver the message in your way, with your style (understanding your style is work you should have done when things were good).

Be yourself. And remember to wash your hands.

Hamish Cargill Mumbrella360 2018

Hamish Cargill is the director of brand communications agency XXVI


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