7 Steps to Build a Pandemic Communications Plan
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
by Lisa Mackay
Many arts venues and companies are re-opening and have performances and exhibitions on sale to their audience. The Rozsa Foundation in partnership with Calgary Arts Development, Calgary Foundation, Edmonton Arts Council and RISE UP Calgary, have been hosting webinars related to the practicalities and concerns of re-opening. We also wrote a blog post with some communications messaging tips for re-opening in July, and those tips are still valid, and hopefully helpful.
As we move into more concrete dates and performances, however, communications plans can be complicated amidst the safety protocols and government mandates. To help navigate the area of audience messaging, we present the following steps to creating an effective communications plan.
Step 1: Focus on Safety First
While patrons do want to know about your offerings and specials, first and foremost, they want to know how you will keep them safe. How effectively you communicate this could make the difference between a customer doing business with you now, waiting a while until they feel safer, or just going elsewhere.
Follow official, trusted guidelines from credible sources such as Alberta Health and the City of Calgary. Official requirements can change fast during this pandemic, so refer to these websites daily and update your communications as needed. Many arts organizations are using these guidelines as the minimum in their safety efforts, and are adding additional measures for their patrons.
Once this has been communicated, there is room for information about your experiences and promotions.
Step 2: Segment Your List, and Target Your Messages
Segmentation has always been an important part of a communications plan, but the pandemic has made targeted messaging more important than ever. Part of your audience is keen to return, part is hesitant, and part prefers to wait. How you communicate to each segment, the messaging, and the tone will be different for each.
Some of the ways you can consider segmentation are:
Length of Patron History: How long have these patrons been with you? What have their experiences been with you so far? What level of trust have you established with them? What are they expecting from you in this moment?
First Time Attenders: These patrons felt comfortable coming for the first time during this part of the pandemic. How do you build on this trust? What will they expect when they arrive? How do you prepare them for their first experience at your organization? How can you thank them for their trust?
Subscribers/ Members vs Non-Members/Single Ticket: Have they committed to future activities with you? How do you respond to this show of trust and commitment? Are they coming for a special event? What should they expect? Have they been before? What has changed and what hasn’t?
Location: Are they traveling far? What else might they need to know about attending? Can you help them find a place to stay? Are they coming by transit? What should they know about that?
Programming: Which of your programs do they attend? What does this tell you about them and what they enjoy? How can you speak to their tastes and preferences?
Once you have your segments, be clear about what you want your communication strategy to achieve. Each communication is an important interaction with your guests. Set some goals for each segment, to help focus and simplify your writing, and link your communications to that group together seamlessly.
Step 3: Set Your Goals for Each Segment
Seen and Heard: Empathise with audiences and reserve any judgement. Whatever their stance, most patrons will have given their attendance quite a bit of thought and establishing trust means demonstrating that you acknowledge and respect their perspectives.
In Good Hands: Reassure customers that you've taken all possible steps to keep them safe, and that your priority above all else is the safety of all, from patrons, to volunteers, to staff and performers. List the measures you are taking, from distancing to ventilation, in a clear, unconfusing way.
Here’s Your Part: Make it clear what patrons need to do to attend safely. For example, wear a face mask throughout unless eating or drinking, have your I.D. and QR codes with you, etc.
Up to Date: Communicate clearly and immediately any changes to programming, safety protocols, hours, or requirements.
What to Expect: Manage expectations around what patrons should expect when they arrive, from the moment they are looking at tickets. Point out that no one will be seated beside them (if applicable), or that others might have their masks off if they brought drinks to their seats. No one wants to be surprised when they get there.
Step 4: Use All of Your Platforms
Promote your safety measures and other information everywhere you can, including:
Post a summary of the most important information prominently on your website and link to a more detailed FAQ section.
Create navigation that makes this section of the website easy to find.
You are required to make your COVID-19 Safety Plan available to customers and employees, so create a page for it or link to a downloadable version.
Write a blog post about your measures and link to it from everywhere you can.
Pin your safety plan to the top of Twitter, Facebook, and other channels so it's always easy to find and obviously top of mind for you and for patrons.
Edit your social media bios to include up-to-date information and a link to your safety plan.
Especially as you start to reopen, focus most of your social media output around reassuring customers and meeting any other objectives of your communications plan. This could mean a post on physical distancing measures one day, and something about return policies another. It's OK to repeat posts to make sure these important messages hit home.
Visually show as often as possible patrons enjoying their time with you, while being safe. Distancing, mask-wearing, etc. can be shown better in photos than in words.
Be active on social media and share the love. For example, you could congratulate other arts companies for reopening, share their messages, and recommend them to your followers.
Much of your communications to patrons will be by email. However, people are receiving more email than ever, so make yours stand out, be clear and concise, and focus on one message at a time.
Signage is a crucial part of your communications plan. This could include directional signage on the floor, signs asking patrons to prepare their IDs and QR codes, signs reminding patrons to distance when possible, and signs welcoming them back!
Step 5: Choose Your Voice
Decide as a team what the voice of your organization sounds like. Give it a persona and characteristics. Who would your organization look like? How does it interact with people? What would it do at a party? How would it give you advice? Identify your tone and be consistent. Also consider the following:
If ever there has been a time for plain language and clarity, this is it. Stick to the language Alberta Health uses as your audience will be very familiar with it. You can still be warm and friendly, but keep it clear, and keep it simple.
Highlight as much flexibility as you can offer. Outline or link to your return or exchange policies for admission. Address any uncertainty about the future with reassuring messages of understanding. No one should attend when they are feeling ill because they don’t want to waste a ticket, so be clear about your policies at all stages of a patron’s buying journey. If you have livestreaming or at-home options, point them out.
All departments must be aligned in communicating to your audiences. Being contacted by Audience Services, receiving a donation appeal from the development department, and getting a marketing email the same week is too much for one patron. Decide on your communications plan and schedules together to minimize the number of touchpoints, communicate clear and relevant information, and built trust with your patrons. Go back to the goals for each communication and segment and stick to them.
Make sure that the safety message at the top of each message is entirely consistent, regardless of which department is communicating.
Step 6: Actively Invite Feedback
We are making this up as we go along – there are no case studies or research showing us the most effective way to re-open and communicate with our audiences. The best and most accurate information on how we are doing will come directly from our patrons. Actively inviting feedback is key to responding quickly to changes in patron experiences and expectations. You can do this in many ways, including:
Sending out a post-visit survey with short simple questions about their experience and feelings of safety and comfort.
Having a link to provide feedback prominently displayed on your website.
Inviting feedback and comments on your social media posts and having a link to a feedback form or email in your bio.
Having staff on site at events armed with specific questions for patrons on their experience. Do they feel confident that their safety is being looked after? Are there any measures missing that would improve their trust? Would they recommend your organization to others as a space place to spend time?
This feedback will not only to improve your protocols and plans, but can also be shared with other potential patrons as testimonials about your high standards of customer care and safety concerns.
Step 7: Focus on Emotions
“Your value [as an arts organization] is the creation of human emotions.” (Pepe Zapata) Remember that most of the names in your database and patrons you are communicating with are there for a reason. Determine, and speak to, what that reason is in terms each segment will recognize.
Keep your communications patron-focused. Audiences don’t necessarily want to know exactly what safety protocols you have in place; they want to know if they will feel safe. Patrons aren’t interested in the kind of sanitizer you are using; they want to know if they will have a good time. In addition to your writing, images of other patrons enjoying themselves will go a long way in assuring them that they will.
Use your empathy to build a bridge between your patrons, your artists, your staff, and the art. The pandemic has shown us that we are all connected and deserving of respect and kindness, so show this in your communications, both internally and externally.
Finally, speak to their positive emotions, assure them that their safety is paramount, and remind them of the feelings and emotions that they can only find with you and your organization and the wonderful programs they love.
You can watch the recordings on our past webinars on our website. Our next webinar is tentatively scheduled for December 14 at 1:00 pm, so mark your calendar!