Dealing with the destabilizing nature of the pandemic.

Everyone I chat with is focused on what happens once we are clear of the pandemic. Those of us responsible for any kind of corporate marketing, and especially the medium of live events, will need to guard against an easy mistake.

We can’t assume that the people we were reaching six weeks ago are the same people we will engage going forward. Not because the participant list has changed, but because they are not the same people they were before the pandemic.

We need to meet people where they are right now. This is always true, but will be more dramatic in the weeks and months ahead. Many people have been traumatized — they have witnessed illness and death on a scale previously unimagined. Everyone has experienced loss in some way.

Complicating this is the destabilizing nature of the pandemic. I can’t tell you how many action plans my people have put together only to have them made obsolete by the latest breaking news. Every day I hear the weariness in my colleagues’ voices as each new headline, new statistic, new prognostication sends them back to the white board to revise their plans. It’s an insidious game in which we seem to take one step forward and two steps back.

Multiply this sense of frustration by the many companies, agencies, school boards, police departments and hospitals that are trying to execute plans while riding on an ever-shifting sea of new data. Even the heroes in this pandemic story — from first responders to grocery-store stockers — are undergoing a transformation.

It will be tempting, whenever we get the go-ahead, to try to pick up where we left off — to blow the dust off our marketing plans, event designs and show content and hope it will still work. It won’t.

To move forward, we need to acknowledge that people have fundamentally changed. Our company has been consulting with an industrial psychologist who explained that anxiety literally lights up different wiring in our brains. Fear and worry surrounding the pandemic have emotionally hijacked our thought processes. Acting “normal” in this situation would be counterproductive because nothing else is normal.

When we finally are able to go back to producing live events, we must avoid seeming tone deaf — where we risk creating ill will and evaporating trust. Instead, we should work hard to be tuned in. To do that, we need to appreciate where people’s heads are at in the moment. You can bet that most of us have dropped down a rung or two on Maslow’s Pyramid — we’ve been shaken out of any self-actualized complacency. We are all feeling a bit needy.

As marketers, a proactive approach begins with assuming that people won’t have the capacity for long or complicated messages. They are worried about paying rent and whether their kids will graduate from high school. Keep content simple and direct. Also, people under stress tend to filter out anything that seems to challenge comfortable beliefs. So we need to be strategic and intentional about sharing information that connects with their priorities. New information will be admitted only if it is super-relevant and helps them right now. That’s what they’ll be listening for.

This applies not only to individuals, but to companies and organizations that are scrambling to understand budgets, resolve human resources issues, repair disrupted timelines, and deal with a host of new challenges. That pretty much describes all of us.

I firmly believe that as soon as humans can get back together, they will! And when, eventually, we are able to resume commerce, let’s try to meet in a place of patience and kindness. Let’s use friendly voices and short, frank, reassuring sentences. Let’s remember that we are working with the walking wounded. And let’s pull together to make a full recovery.