Stop chasing your tail. Think a few weeks ahead. Your crisis messaging demands it.

It’s hard to think long-term right now, with everything changing rapidly. But you don’t have to react — and communicate — as if your time horizon is measured in hours. Think a few weeks ahead, and your messaging will look a lot smarter.

I thought of this because of the string of messages I got recently from my doctor’s office (on my health portal — so I had to click through to see if they were personal or urgent). The series of messages looked like this (all of these are abridged, I’m only sharing the beginning of each message):

17 March: Dear Patient,

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all navigating unchartered territory. We recognize that some of our patients have questions, some are scared, some are feeling down, and some are sick.

At [name of practice], we want to be there for you. We are also mindful of being there for our staff and their families. In addition,we are trying to take every precaution to keep our physicians/physician assistants available working to avoid quarantines that would deplete the supply of health care providers.

Starting Monday March 16, we will no longer have in-person office visits. In order to maintain your safety and the safety of [name of practice] staff and health care providers, we will be transitioning to providing care through Telehealth telephon evisits. This will likely occur for at least the next few weeks. It is difficult to predict much beyond that as our world is changing on a daily basis. . . .

23 March: Dear Patients,

We would like to update you about COVID-19 and [name of practice]’s care of our patients. We continue to focus on caring for you and meeting all of your health care needs while maintaining your safety and the safety of our staff. If any of our staff or health care providers are sick, we are following a strict protocol to keep them home until it is safe for them to return to the office.

We continue to care for the vast majority of patients over the telephone. Your insurance will be billed for these visits but you will not be charged a copay. Adult well visits are being postponed for the time being.

Our office hours remain 7:30am – 6pm. We will see well children for their annual exam and vaccines between 9am and noon. Between 12-2pm, we will have lunch and thoroughly clean the office. From 2-5pm, we will see a small number of patients with acute concerns that are not infectious in nature. From 5-6pm, we will clean the office again and answer phones. . . .

30 March: Dear Patients:

This week we are going to focus on . . . important items as we are learning how to give you the best care and access

Please know that you should not hesitate to reach out to us with questions or concerns.

We want to help and welcome serving you through the available telehealth and patient portal options. We are committed to exceeding your expectations and welcome having that opportunity through these remote safe methods of connection. . . .

1 April: To our beloved patient community, Please know that during this challenging time we are here for you in every capacity that we can be. The transition to temporarily becoming a primarily telehealth-based practice has been smooth and has allowed us to adapt quickly to continue to meet your needs. With few exceptions, we are able to provide our normal spectrum of services and care. Many of you have expressed a caring hesitation about not wanting to “burden” us with your routine or non-urgent care needs during this time. While we deeply appreciate your concern about our wellbeing, we want you to know that we actively welcome your appointments, calls, and messages. There are no trivial physical or emotional concerns. We are here to provide you with excellent continuous care and we need your continued business to maintain our practice. We are honored to be partnered with you on your health journeys as medical providers and on the journey of life that we all face together as friends, colleagues and as a community.

We can offer timely same day triage and management of your acute health concerns (related to Covid or otherwise), thoughtful counsel to help keep you out of urgent care centers and ERs, routine follow-up and management of chronic health issues, labs and immunizations, and referrals to specialist resources as needed. Please also know that our wonderful team of mental health providers are available to established patients. . . .

I sympathize with the problems this practice faces. And in a time of such worries over health, it makes sense that they’d send multiple messages over the course of a few weeks — even though they hadn’t messaged me about anything by my own bills, appointments, and test results for at least six months.

My question is, as they sent each message, did they consider what message they would have to send the next week? Did they understand that they’d have to go from explaining telehealth to encouraging people to use it? Or did each new development cause them to have to consider a new communications strategy?

This has absolutely nothing to do with the type of business. I got a similar series of messages from my gym (“Clean your equipment after using” . . . “We open and doing more cleaning than before” . . . “We’re open, but limited to 25 people at once” . . . “We’re closed, sorry.”). I got them from my airlines and retailers. Every email marketing and communications staff is chasing its own tail here trying to catch up to the demands of unimaginable events. (Except for the clueless ones whose marketing messaging has continued on autopilot — and if that’s you, please shut it off and think a minute.)

You can think further ahead than this

It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you’re in PR or email marketing, I understand where you are coming from. Your CEO is changing strategy every few days. Your marketing people are adjusting with daily updates on the plans. And you, at the tail end of this chain, are skittering around, just trying to keep up with all the changes. As soon as you get an email out, you need to deal with the challenge of tomorrow’s messaging, which may be completely different.

Consider it from the customer’s point of view. They see a series of messages that sound urgent but may be contradicting things you said just days ago. They are scared and frustrated already. Their ability to respond to “urgent” shifts in messaging is limited. They’re losing patience with you.

There is a better way. And it doesn’t require you to predict what will happen six months from now, which is, basically, impossible.

You just have to think about what will happen in the next few weeks. Here are some likely scenarios. (I know this is depressing, but if you’re planning messaging, it’s better to understand it than to hide from it.)

  • Parts of the country that are not locked down will become locked down.
  • The political blame game will ratchet upwards.
  • Many more people will be dying. Many of your customers will know someone who is in the hospital, or dying.
  • People will become increasingly impatient with being unable to connect with each other in person.
  • Medical professionals will struggle to cope. Too many of them will get sick.
  • There will be severe and life-threatening shortages of medical supplies.
  • Misinformation about cures, vaccines, and prevention will be spreading.
  • Everyone will be getting checks from the government.
  • Small businesses will be looking into government loans and identifying other strategies to hang on while things are locked down.
  • There will be a deepening recession. Millions will be out of work.
  • Stocks will gyrate wildly. Many will see the value of their savings significantly reduced, at least for a while.
  • There may be a timeline for some businesses opening up again based on measured improvements in infection rates. In some parts of the country where the pandemic has peaked, it will begin to recede.
  • Some people will be perceived as heroes — not just medical professionals, but business leaders and government officials who are doing their best to mitigate the damage.
  • Your customers will have problems to deal with — whether that’s keeping their children occupied, working from home, struggling to pay rent, understanding their symptoms, or just feeling bored and anxious.

It took me 15 minutes to write that list. Now you do it. Think about your industry and your business. What will change in the next few weeks? What is knowable? What is unknowable? When will it become knowable? How will your customers be feeling? What will they need? And how will those needs change over time?

If you can keep your eyes, not just on the current moment, but on what’s just around the corner, you can be prepared.

You can craft each message with an idea of what the next message will have to be, and the one after that. You can prepare.

This has two important benefits.

First off, your customers will perceive you as helpful, because you will be anticipating their needs, not chasing yesterdays’s catastrophic event.

And secondly, you’ll be able to help your boss and her manager to think about strategy. Instead of being on the tail end of their gyrations, you’ll be able to lead them in middle-term thinking. And they will be grateful for it, because they’re just as harried and worried as you are.

You can think ahead in a crisis. Not years ahead. Not even months ahead. Weeks ahead. It’s an exercise worth doing. Next week’s version of you will be very thankful that you did.

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