We’ve been doing quite a bit of COVID-19 comms copywriting recently. Here are 5 things we’ve observed around the use of language and tone of voice.
1. ‘Social’ vs ‘physical’ distancing
Back in March, during a World Health Organization (WHO) press conference, WHO technical consultant Dr Maria Van Kerkhove announced that the WHO preferred the term ‘physical distancing’ over ‘social distancing’. “We’re changing to say physical distance and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected,” she was quoted as saying in the conference transcript.
It’s a sentiment which Tim Stonor, deputy chair of Design Council, explains eloquently in the council’s journal:
“‘Social distancing’ is the wrong term. It implies we should be less social. Yes, we should put physical distance between us but we need to remain as social as ever (indeed more social than ever) finding new ways of being social: a wave from the window, a call or an email.”
And yet, the term ‘social distancing’ is still widely being used in communications with a few exceptions (see image 1, The Guardian). We prefer ‘physical’, but with ‘social’ now so ingrained in comms, and certainty being important in such an uncertain world, it’s hard to justify changing it.
2. Don’t force it
We’ve seen a few really good examples of brands evolving their brand straplines – and other brand elements – to create an appropriate headline or sign-off for their communications during the COVID-19 pandemic. We like B&Q’s ‘Together, we can do it’ (see image 2) play on, ‘You can do it when you B&Q it’, and we like Tesco’s ‘Because now more than ever, every little helps’ play on ‘Every little helps’ (see image 3). We’ve seen others that just don’t work or are bordering inappropriate.
3. Jokes = out, lighthearted tone of voice (if appropriate) = in
There are few – if any – justifiable situations when it’s OK to use humour at the moment. But it is OK to use an established lighthearted brand tone of voice to communicate with customers if it’s appropriate to do so. Done right, it can reassure and endear. For example, in the context of a shop window poster, communicating temporary closure, we like Yo! Sushi’s, ‘It’s not a goodbye, it’s a see you later’ headline on its closed restaurants, and ‘Not all heroes wear capes’ on its website, (see 4). But beware, there is a fine line. And remember that context is everything.
4. We’re all in this together, right?
‘We’re all in this together’ – or variants of the phrase – has been used by companies (e.g. see M&S, image 6) to demonstrate empathy and mutual support during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are, however, two issues with the phrase: (1) It will forever be linked to former Chancellor George Osborne who used it in addressing the Tory party conference but was criticised by those who pointed out his spending cuts did not affect everyone equally; (2) It was recently used by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in relation to COVID-19, but has already fallen foul of some critics who point out that COVID-19 is not a great equaliser.
When thinking about phrases, remember that whilst COVID-19 is affecting all of us, it’s affecting us all in different ways, as Sky News explores in a recent article (see image 5 or read the full article here).
5. The development of a COVID-19 common language
A whole new glossary of terms that were never or rarely used before has sprung up almost overnight, to help support COVID-19 communications. For example, ‘social / physical distancing’ (see above), ‘contact-free’, ‘self-isolate’, ‘safe distance’, ‘at home’ (used by restaurants offering delivery of food for reheating at home) etc. It makes sense to use such terms in your own comms when they’re already ingrained in common parlance. This should help to ensure your comms are easily understood and working efficiently. But always sense check before using (for example, see points 1 and 2 above).