In these unprecedented times of fear and uncertainty related to COVID-19, the last thing people want to be worrying about is energy. Utilities provide critical infrastructure and services to our society; they are experts at keeping the lights on. When issues arise, such as in times of severe weather events, utility crisis communication plans have it covered, they inform and reassure that power will be restored. But odds are most crisis communications plans do not address the situation we are faced with today. Utilities that effectively mobilize to help their customers, partners, and stakeholders navigate these trying times will not only strengthen their relationship with customers but also reinforce customers’ trust in the utility.

Strategic messaging in times of crisis is an acquired skill, and doing it well is pivotal. From our research for utilities over the past thirty years, several best practices have emerged.

Address Customer Concerns.

Customers need messaging that informs them what they can expect in this ever-changing environment but also proactively addresses items they might not have taken into consideration. With customers now shifted to spending more time at home, residential utility bills are likely to go up. This provides a perfect opportunity to offer simple, no-cost energy tips to save energy and money during this difficult time. While there may be a tendency to focus on the typical energy-saving strategies, finding innovative ways to focus on less common strategies for energy efficiency may gain more traction.

Our research has shown that many people believe they have already taken all the conservation actions they can. For example, turning off the lights when you leave the room is a practice most customers know and use. By introducing less common practices, such as unplugging appliances or power strips when not in use or dimming your computer monitor, utilities can educate customers on additional actions they can take to save energy, and do so with practices that have little to do with comfort.

Demonstrate Empathy.

You are likely experiencing a lot of the same emotions that your customers are—concern, fear, and uncertainty. Now is the time utilities should lead with empathy. It has been a tough time for everyone these past few weeks as we navigate COVID-19. It is crucial for utilities to show customers that they care. Businesses, in general, need to strike a delicate balance between providing relevant information in a timely manner without contributing to an already heightened state of anxiety. While utilities offering energy savings tips at this time can be perceived as helpful, some customers may see this as utilities continuing with business as usual, and not directly addressing the changed environment. Thus, carefully framing the messaging around the energy-saving actions to communicate caring and empathy will mitigate this potential backlash.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.

Silence may be golden, but it can also be deafening during times of crisis. It is essential that utilities acknowledge the current situation as silence can often be interpreted as indifference or worse tone-deafness. Those that are communicating first and frequently get to define the narrative and frame the conversation. In these times of social distancing, now is the time for utilities to implement strategies to maintain utility visibility and reinforce utilities as a reliable and trusted member of the community and source of information. Unfortunately, there are those seeking to take advantage of the situation. In the past few days, we have seen an uptick in utility scams. Customers are receiving calls requesting immediate payment on past due utility bills. Scammers are also posing as utility workers and showing up at customer’s homes to read, upgrade, reset, or inspect their utility meter. Protecting customers from these scams through targeted communication is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate empathy. Since many utilities have pledged not to suspend service during this difficult time and have postponed sending employees into homes, ensuring customers have this information is an important step to ensuring not only the customers’ safety but also highlights the measures utilities are taking to protect employees.

Ensure Messaging Employs the Appropriate Tone.

In these anxious times, where we are dependent on digital correspondence, messaging can often come off formal or robotic instead of heartfelt, caring, and supportive. Connecting with emotional motivators drives consumer behavior. While a lot of the language around COVID-19 focuses on distancing and staying apart, utilities should focus on messaging that communicates a connection with their customers and communities—messaging that focuses on “being in this together” or “working together to find solutions.” There has been a preponderance of messaging from companies focusing on what they are doing during the pandemic. This type of messaging can often fall on deaf ears if these actions are not tied to how they benefit the customer. People want to hear more about what companies are doing to help them and their community.

Rethink Your Channel Strategy.

COVID-19 is shifting media consumption habits. With this dynamic shift, utilities may need to reconsider their channel strategy to ensure they are using the right communication channels to deliver information. Our research has found that Facebook is the most effective communication channel in times of crisis. Facebook reports that they are seeing an extreme spike in usage due to the ongoing pandemic. TikTok users and downloads have also soared in recent weeks, especially with younger individuals. Utilities may need to reassess their channel selection and spend to align with current usage patterns and optimize marketing budgets.

Use Humor Judiciously.

Using humor in marketing is a tried and tested strategy for brands to ensure their campaigns are impactful. However, using humor can also be risky, especially in times of crisis, as being overly casual can be off-putting. It is important to know your customers and what their questions, concerns, and needs are right now. Providing content that speaks directly to these considerations ensures your communication remains relevant and valuable during this difficult time. This doesn’t mean that your communications need to become a COVID-19 news feed. People are also looking for distraction and moments of positivity. Our research has found that memes can be particularly effective in times of crisis. Memes provide education and encouragement, often with a little humor mixed in. Memes provide a welcome element of real-life camaraderie, helping to bring people together online to help keep hopes and spirits high.

Test advertising collateral and messaging.

Developing effective messaging is challenging in the best of times; it is even more challenging today. The state of the world is changing rapidly, and thus our communication strategies need to keep pace. Even in this rapidly evolving situation, utilities should take the time to conduct quick online message testing to optimize campaign collateral and ensure messaging is resonating with customers in the way that is intended.

While much remains uncertain in our world, one thing we know for sure is that this crisis will pass. One silver lining of this experience is that we are learning more about our customers and how to strengthen our relationships with them. Perhaps we will be able to take some of the lessons learned here and apply them to messaging surrounding how we talk about climate change. Lessons learned during these tough times today will help guide us not in just communicating with customers but also how to mobilize customers to be part of the solution moving forward.

By: Ellen Steiner, Ph.D.