Communicating in a Crisis: A Best Practice Checklist from Behavioural Science

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and measures in place to limit its impact, organisations face an overwhelming array of communications challenges, including: 

  • Providing effective customer support  
  • Effectively reassuring clients, employees and other stakeholders
  • Encouraging positive new behaviours  

Communications at a time like this are absolutely critical – and as we’ve seen with some government efforts, a confusing or poorly received message can be disastrous. 

To make your communications as effective as possible during the pandemic (and beyond), we can share a simple checklist, based on best practice from behavioural science.  By following the PERCENT acronym below, you can help ensure that communications are understood and acted upon.  

1. Personal – to maximise saliency, ensure your customer communications are personalised as much as possible (i.e. “Dear Richard”, rather than “Dear Customer”). We are more likely to pay attention to information that is salient (and behave accordingly) – and we are subconsciously trained over many years to listen out for our names. 

2. Emphasise – that measures taken are for your customer benefit, not you as a business. Do not imply that branches would stay open if it weren’t for government sanctions (for example) – but that you are taking measures to protect customers and their families, and your staff. These are the most salient worries for customers right now. 

3. Recognise – that the circumstances are challenging for customers, as well as your business, and they will be especially distracted/inattentive. Customers will be bombarded with messages about coronavirus right now, and so it is important for your comms to gain attention and be as brief as possible – or they will not be read. 

4. Community – now, more than ever, people want to feel part of an ‘in-group’ (i.e. a community of people). This is invaluable to providing a feeling of safety and security, which is critical at times like these. Using actual staff in your communications, for example, helps reinforce that there are real humans dealing with their challenges, with empathy.  

5. Easy – if you make changes as easy as possible for customers, this will make them more likely to comply, and be more loyal. If you are providing payment holidays or refunds, for example, this should be given by default, for example, or provided through a simply one-click online confirmation, rather than requiring customers to call – which will likely require long wait times. This may also benefit customer service capacity. 

6. Norms – when faced with uncertainty, we look to others to guide our behaviour (‘social norms’). At these times, when customers and staff are looking for reassurance, knowing what others are doing is particularly helpful. So framing advice in terms of what others are doing (e.g. “most people find the help they need online”) can remove stigma from help-seeking and encourage use of the right channels for advice. 

7. Tone – everyone is facing uncertainty and heightened stress. Reassurance is critical, but also a positive/optimistic (but realistic) tone will generate greater self-efficacy (confidence) in your ability to manage the current circumstances. Positive/aspirational imagery, saying “when” rather than “if”, and so on, will inspire confidence and favourability to your brand – long term. 

We hope that these initial guidelines are helpful and if you’d like to learn more, here is a short video. that briefly illustrates our COGNITION Audit approach and shares evidence of its impact.

If you need help with specific customer communications (emails, letters, website copy or call scripts), then please get in contact with The BVA Nudge Consulting by emailing, and request a sample COGNITION audit.

– Richard Chataway, author of The Behaviour Business and Vice-President of the BVA Nudge Consulting.