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  • Writer's pictureEttie Holland

Three phrases NOT to use in your Crisis Comms – and what to say instead

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Google Search volume for "unprecedented times"

Most copywriters have spent their last few months drowning in COVID-19 statements. Brands and businesses everywhere are scrambling to “be there” for their customers and employees and let’s face it.

This is an unprecedentedly unprecedented situation.

But that’s the problem, because nobody really knows what to say. So everyone’s trotting out regurgitated, stale phrases. And sincerity, authenticity and usefulness – all the good things – vanish out the window.

Here are three phases we’re totally sick of seeing, and some better alternatives. Plus the two crucial questions to ask before writing future crisis comms.

Three crappiest COVID-19 phrases

Vikki Ross Tweet about unprecedented times

Industry heavyweight @VikkiRossWrites being as incisive as ever

“In these unprecedented times”

This one crops up so much it’s like the “inclement weather” warning at stations. It fades into the background and doesn’t mean anything to anyone. Well. Apart from long-suffering copywriters who, every time they hear it, are wryly confused why anyone’d choose that over “be careful, it might be slippy”.

Anyhoo. Unprecedented is like that. The first person who used it landed on it and thought, ‘Hm, there’s a grand word that captures how profoundly extraordinary these times are’.

But then a second person used it. Then a third. Then a seven millionth. And now it’s trite and meaningless. Especially now, months after everyone knows what’s going on.

Instead try:

  • “We know things are weird/wild/strange/surreal right now…”

  • “With everything that’s happening right now…”

  • “As you’d expect right now…”

The point is, don’t tell people what they’re already deeply familiar with. It’ll seem trite or, worse, patronising.

“We’re all in this together”

Are we though? The problem here is, it’s typically used by people at the top to tell people not at the top that the concept of ‘top’ doesn’t exist.

If you’re writing this, you’d better have concrete actions that back it up.

Like, is the leadership team taking a major paycut to avoid layoffs? Great. Maybe you’re verging towards “we’re all in it together” territory. Are you providing interest-free loans so your employees can cover rent? Also great. Have shareholders agreed to suspend dividends?

Or do you have a vast pay and opportunity gap between the top and bottom of your company? Do you have, say, office cleaners who’re working 16-hour days to make their bills while your C-Suite earn six figures working from home?

If you don’t look after everyone equally, “we’re all in this together” won’t fly. And worse, it’ll come across as insulting. Because people who’re not at the top know damn well they’re not at the top. Don’t deny their reality.

Instead try:

  • “We know you’re worried about X, Y and Z. Here’s what we’re doing to help”

  • “Here’s how we’re trying to support you at the moment”

  • “Is there anything else we can do to help?”

The point is, don’t deny your privilege. Do show what you’re doing to minimise harm.

“Now more than ever”

This isn’t all bad, if you can back it up.

Like, “given soaring application volumes, using recruitment tech to drive efficiency is more important now than ever”. Or “keeping your people engaged matters more than ever because WFH can quickly damage collaboration networks”.

But loads of businesses are just – saying it. Adding it blindly onto every sentence that references COVID-19. (To prove they’re relevant, one supposes)

Also, it’s unnecessarily grandiose.

There’s a tinge of superiority about it, like a top scientist making a long-awaited and profound revelation to an ignorant public. Which would be fine, if you were making a profound revelation, rather than pointing out “COVID-19 exists”.

The main problem is the “now” bit. And the implied pause. Like “Now [deep breath], more than ever, [another deep breath…” It’s just a crap written statement.

Instead try:

  • "More than usual…"

  • "Right now…"

  • "At the moment…"

The point is, don’t talk down to your audience. Nobody likes it and you’ll look like a pretentious idiot.

Next time you need to communicate in a crisis, ask yourself these questions first:

1) Do we actually need to say something?

Most brands have this weird disorder where they assume customers care a whole lot more than’s true. In reality, customers mostly only care about the stuff that directly impacts them and their lives. Especially in B2B, when your buyers aren’t spending their money to solve a personal problem.

Before you churn out a bog-standard response that nobody’ll read, let alone care about, ask whether you actually need to insert your voice here.

2) How do our actions impact customers/employees?

Here’s where you get concrete. If it’s necessary to speak, that’ll be because something you’re doing now will impact how customers interact with you, buy from you or use your product.

Customers don’t care that you’re working from home, like every other B2B SaaS company right now. They care that you’re working from home SO customer service resolution times might be 24-hours slower than usual.

Before you draft something, start with a layman’s terms list of everything you’re actually doing to HELP customers or employees. If you’re not doing anything, refer back to question one.

One of the biggest traps businesses fall into is thinking they’re more important than they are. And inserting your voice into conversations where you don’t add value looks inauthentic or, worse, self-serving and manipulative.

Tether your crisis comms to these two questions – and avoid the three phases above – and you’ll be doing a better job than most.

We’re HR Tech Copy, the boutique copywriting agency for HR technology and recruitment technology businesses that want to communicate more powerfully in writing. Grab us if you need support getting messaging nuances like this right.


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