It can’t be said enough — we’re all dealing with an unsure and unfamiliar situation right now. As businesses struggle, millions are unemployed and there are a lot of unknowns out there. To date, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed lives by the tens of thousands in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands worldwide. People are alternately scared, angry, upset and confused. With so much uncertainty, one question for companies still operating and trying to stay afloat is: What can I say in my marketing messages?

We’re not all multi-million-dollar companies hiring top ad agencies to do our work. Most of us are doing our own marketing, email campaigns, and social media, and hoping we get it right – some do a great job but even during our pre-COVID days, making a marketing misstep could prove costly in more ways than one.

What always comes to mind for me when I think of “what can I say?” is Rudy Giuliani’s famous appearance on the first episode of Saturday Night Live after the 9/11 attacks. SNL creator Lorne Michaels, amid an emotional crowd of first responders, asked then-N.Y. Mayor Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” to which Giuliani responded, “Why start now?”

It’s a classic skit but also calls attention to a similar issue many are dealing with now: What’s the right balance? Not much illustrates it better than this spoof ad by copywriter Samantha Geloso, featured by AdAge, titled “Hey. We’re a Brand.”

But that’s not to say it’s wrong to promote themes of solidarity, concern and togetherness, as long as it’s done right. What we’re actually seeing a lot of is known as cause-related marketing – marketing programs built around a charitable or societal cause. In the age of COVID-19 it’s hard not to do this: As I write this, I’m watching a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial giving thanks to all the nurses, doctors, first responders, etc., running on Dunkin. “We’ve got your back,” is the final line (in my opinion the ad might carry more impact if the company offered a free coffee to all healthcare workers and first responders).

Another ad I noticed during my impromptu commercial-break research was from Uber, a company obviously struggling during the pandemic as it seeks alternatives to its primary function of transporting people to places. The ad spotlights people in isolation, finding ways to communicate with each other while staying at home. It looks like so many ads we see on TV, as well as the “We’re a Brand” spoof, but finally at the end comes the tag: “Thank you for not riding with Uber.” I like it.

Then there’s Citi. “Thank you to the nurses, doctors, grocery workers, delivery people, etc. We’ll get through this,” is the gist.  There’s no call to action, but unspoken, of course, in all of these ads is “please remember how selfless and thoughtful we were during this global crisis and use our products/services when you need them again.” Fair enough. There is a saying that’s so ubiquitous I had trouble tracking the original source, but it goes: “When times are good, you should advertise. When times are bad, you must advertise.”

These are much larger companies with big ad dollars, of course, and most seem to be doing it just fine – most of what I see on TV these days, and from larger companies in general, doesn’t get things too wrong – big ad agencies (hopefully) ensure that.

Even so, it’s good to make sure we’re keeping a few important things in mind. Considering context and timing is going to be especially important as we move forward with our marketing efforts.

“We’re all in this together” does not work for everything

Google has posted a blog titled “Inside Google Marketing: 5 principles guiding our media teams in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.” It’s something every organization, no matter what size, should at least take a look at. There is no shortage of advice on the internet, but Google, which covers such a broad range of mediums, geography and products, is a source that has something for every brand or company type. In every section there is a guidepost; under “Contribution” it asks: “What ways can our brand — and even our owned media channels — be helpful to people and businesses in this moment of need?” Sometimes the answer to that question is, “it can’t.”

I got an email recently from a photo app I’d downloaded a while ago, telling me something along the lines of, “We’re all in this together. Here’s 20% off one of our apps.” Somehow, I do not feel that the ability to batch-resize photo files for $2 off is going to be particularly helpful in this moment of need. Maybe somewhere out there is someone for whom this particular ability will be useful in getting through a time of extreme anxiety and economic uncertainty, but the potential market seems small enough that the subject line felt inappropriate. Just advertise the 20% off. Not everything in these times has to be about COVID-19.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea that we’re all in this together. We do need a sense of togetherness and solidarity – it’s human nature. But don’t say it unless there is at least a grain of truth to what you’re promoting.

Be relevant

By now you’ve likely put a stop to any campaigns that had been planned or scheduled before March and have reevaluated your messages, regardless of your product. For BPO Media, for example, our primary product is content, and a major communications medium for that content is social media. While we usually promote a mix of old and new content, we’ve had to be a lot more careful and do a good read-through of every article or blog to decide whether it’s still relevant in current context — even a single sentence can render something inappropriate.

What would be inappropriate about an article about, say, production print or sales techniques? There are a few ways they could feel out of place, but the biggest offenders I’ve found tend to be statistics about the economy. Let’s face it, any projections made prior to March 2020 are largely null and void, so even pieces that aren’t COVID-centric should be careful about citing data or talking about expected job growth or projections for office print. Case in point (that is also a shameless plug): We fielded our annual Imaging Trends survey in late 2019 and early 2020, and while a large portion of the data collected remains valid, any pre-March responses regarding expectations for business in 2020 are out the window. There may still be optimism and hope for the future (spoiler: there is), but it’s based on completely different data. It’s why we titled our upcoming webinar “A Tale of Two Years” – the 2020 we made projections about is not the one we’re going to experience, and we’ll be comparing it with updated post-COVID-19 survey results.

Choose your words and images carefully

Be careful with words like “deadly” and “killer” — it’s not always wrong, but it does require some extra thought as to context. “Virus” is another word that’s taken on a different connotation, so even if you’re legitimately selling antivirus software — an essential product right now — the way you present it will be key. “Wipe out viruses with [insert software here]” is probably a bad subject line.

And how about images? What’s the right balance? Google’s guidelines again are worth taking a look at: “We’re reevaluating creative that shows interactions like handshakes, hugs, and high-fives, since social distancing is an important tactic for slowing the spread of illness,” they note. Additionally, it’s important to maintain balance — you don’t want to be too dramatic or not dramatic enough. I’ve tried to avoid images of the virus itself, as it feels overly dramatic to illustrate, for example, a collection of blogs and news stories for the imaging channel with a big magnified coronavirus image. Stock images abound of magnified viruses, people in masks, tired healthcare workers — it can be too easy to stray into “Hey. We’re a Brand” territory. But you also don’t want to be too irreverent. Slapstick humor, most experts agree, doesn’t have a place either. What does? To quote Lorne Michaels, “Can we be funny?” Yes, but carefully, within reason and in the right context — and have others gut-check it (and since my default response to anything is usually humor, I’ve really had to take that advice).

Don’t get political

This should be a no-brainer, but it can be hard. So many of us have strong opinions right now, but save them for your friends and family, and maybe your personal Facebook page — places where it’s OK to stir things up. Unless you’re actually writing opinion pieces for the New York Times, leave it out of your professional communications, and it should go without saying that anything that smacks of political bias has no place in brand communications. People of every political bent are affected by the current situation, and regardless of where you stand politically, it is your responsibility as a communications professional to provide objective counsel.

To call the COVID-19 pandemic crisis uncharted territory right now may no longer be accurate. Sure, it’s unprecedented and new rulebooks have been created – but we’re almost two months in, and at this point, there are at least some rudimentary charts to follow. Ultimately, there’s a lot of common sense needed, but there are some good guides out there as well. I’ll list a few below – but I’ll also say listen to your gut, check things with your coworkers, and when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

A few good resources:

Inside Google Marketing: 5 principles guiding our media teams in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak

American Marketing Association: Support for Marketing Professionals During the COVID-19 Crisis

Content Marketing Institute: How We’re Navigating the New Now of Content Marketing

Public Relations Society of America: Resources for Communicating in a Time of COVID-19 (some resources are members only or paid content)

amy weiss

is editorial director of BPO Media’s publications Workflow and The Imaging Channel, and senior analyst for BPO Research. As a professional writer and editor, she has specialized in the office technology industry for the last 20 years. Prior to that she worked in public relations and has a master's degree in communication arts.