Get Real: Small business COVID-19 crisis communications strategy

April 20, 2020

Micro- and small businesses run dangerously close to empty too often. Sometimes the easiest thing is to silently scream through it. So this whole COVID-19 thing is a punch in the faces of people who are far too familiar with struggle and diminishing returns as it is.

A communications agency catering to larger budgets would say (from some great height) that you should already have a full-scale crisis communications plan in place far ahead of a tragedy or emergency. Yeah, right. Wouldn’t we all love to have the kind of resources and personnel needed to do that?

Nope, we’re small teams running small businesses. We have to think on our feet, be agile, pivot—just like we do every single day of the year. 

If you’re waiting on the government… uh…

As we’ve seen with the recent failure of the PPP program to pass funds onto those business owners who need it most, the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing to the surface all manner of inadequacies. Beyond a fleeting mention in campaign speeches, our current government system has rarely honored the true value of micro- and small business to the structure and sustainability of our country.

But certainly, relying on slow-moving, incomprehensible government programs or bank loans has never been a solution. You know that.

PPP Loan Tracker

Data from the COVID Loan Tracker, 4/20/20

Small business owners who believe that the government or banks will provide adequately to save them—and who wait for that to happen and even act surprised that (particularly) this administration isn’t meeting their needs—will likely fail. You do remember 2008, right? It’s unbelievable to me that we’d see a market crash twice in 10 years, but… this is America now.

If you’re a small business, these are the forms of assistance and support you can rely on:

  • Businesses helping businesses.
  • Communities helping businesses.
  • Customers and client relationships helping businesses.

Agility & creativity

Small business owners must rouse their weary hearts and show gusto with agility and creativity. Don’t lose heart. Brainstorm, create, devise, research, explore. Take all this time not to fall into a pit of despair, but to lay out how you can become part of the solution.

De-marginalize communications.

Marketing, PR, and other forms of communications fall by the wayside as budgets get trimmed. Now is not the time to fall silent. 

You don’t need to tweet every 12 seconds to be a part of the conversation. But it humanizes your team and your brand to be vocal about how you are responding and, yes, even how you are feeling during this crisis. Talk about your experience. And then comment on and applaud for other people. Be part of the conversation. Obviously, the easiest way to do that is via social media.

Effective communications isn’t really about sales. What will motivate you more when this is over: Delta’s reactivated $99 flights to Miami, or the memory of Dove’s 30-second video campaign?

Communications right now is not about influencers or all the other vapid shit. It’s about gratitude, empathy, awareness, and connection. By which you will generate goodwill—and likely sales. Say thank you to partners and other community members. Thank your congressman, if he’s kicking ass to help small businesses or pitching in making deliveries.

We are all in this together. Use creative ideas—and share those ideas in interesting and fun ways—to stay relevant.

Fear is not your friend.

Everyone is afraid. Even those people (maybe especially those people) who are pretending this isn’t happening or isn’t that big of a deal.

Using fear as a prime motivator is a Trump/chump move, one used by militant hate groups and the reactionary media. Don’t be part of the problem. And definitely: Do not use fear to stir up fear in others as a sales strategy.

Don’t use it to generate gift card sales, for instance. I cannot wrap my head around why stores are pushing gift card sales when they should be highlighting longevity and spirit. Many consumers who might be under extreme financial duress themselves are not likely to buy gift cards from local boutiques that they’re not confident will survive COVID-19.

Plus, once you start dropping your prices, you also lose customer confidence. If it looks like a fire sale and it smells like a fire sale…

Instead, play up your local spirit. Thank your customers liberally. Share videos and photos of your staff. Get involved in a way that shows that you are still alive—and spreads the joy of feeling and being alive in others.


Agility is at play in a variety of ways. Those businesses who are pivoting are gaining support and momentum—and will likely survive. Restaurants providing community food services, clothing manufacturers shifting to become mask-makers, everyone and anyone trying to answer the call for help.

The COVID-19 Innovation Hub is looking for ideas across specific sectors and locations in such categories as:

  • Prevention, treatment, and testing
  • Emergency communications
  • Economic and workforce support
  • Humanitarian aid
  • Education
  • Transport
  • Policy
COVID-19 Response and Recovery Innovation Hub

Opportunities for funding from the COVID-19 Innovation Hub

Become essential by getting ultra-local.

How can your skills and your team’s skills be put to use—locally, if possible? The time is right now to unite with your community and see where your entrepreneurial experience can add value.

Visit Facebook groups and other social media access points, and follow the news closely. Keep an ear to the ground for where you might unite with other businesses to become essential.

Stay on top of it.

Resources are being launched, and programs and grants being offered on a rolling, ever-changing basis. Nominate someone on your team (or in your family there at home) to seek out these opportunities.

Do not wait for information to come in an email from your municipality, state, or federal government. Be ahead of the curve and you will have far less competition when programs (particularly nationwide) are promoted.

We don’t know how long this will last. We only know that everyone on the planet is figuring this out day by day, step by step. So don’t fall into the vortex of overwhelm. Prioritize seeking opportunities, particularly via partnerships, to stay alive.

Get on the list.

People want to help each other survive right now—the playing field has never been more level. Work with your neighbors and business improvement organizations to find local directories that list businesses that are still open.

Typically, the mayor’s office, a news organization, or some other well-connected source will have such a directory that you can be added to. You’ll need to tell them your operating hours and how you are conducting business (curbside pickup, online orders, delivery, etc.).

Curbside / to-go / delivery

Even here in New York City, retailers can offer curbside and to-go orders. While still working within the bounds of good social distancing, you can use your website and other online avenues to sell your merchandise.

Don’t have an online store? If you can get photos together, there are all kinds of ways to set up a quick e-commerce shop. Maybe more important than having that online shop is how you market it. For a quick 30-minute chat about your options, email us.

A thought on reopening…

My hope for all my small business brothers and sisters out there is that you never 100% closed. But if you did, my heart breaks for you, truly.

There are opportunities available to continue to generate revenue—but you cannot do so perhaps within the same framework or mindset you have employed in the past.

So all this talk about reopening the states, from a business perspective, seems a little silly. We are open. The idea that we’re not is a little insulting, frankly.

Get online. Use social media. Build relationships. Get hyper-local. Build on the success you’ve created up till now. Find a reliable support system. Stop looking for someone to blame—focus on your health, safety, and the future.

You must figure out how you can continue on—right now.

What the hell do I know?

I know. 816 New York has been involved in holy-shit-jump-on-it crisis communications for small teams for over a decade now. Check out this case study of the work we’re doing for a small restaurant through COVID-19. His bills are paid. His staff is paid. He’s slammed with orders every day. So yeah… we know a little about staying afloat when the chips are down.

If you need help, ask.

This is far from everything I could say on this topic. And I fear it’s as lacking as the PPP program in trying to cover all possible scenarios. If you want to discuss your unique situation, drop a line.

We’re not just some faceless small business communications agency here. We dive in. We’re right there with you, at the moment you need us. And we’re looking out for you. At any time, during any crisis. Please let us know how we can help.

For more information on how small businesses can survive COVID-19, check out our interview with Mailchimp’s podcast Call Paul, available on all major podcast streaming platforms.

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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