Messaging in a Crisis: Ready or Not, Here We Go

creative outhouse logo
Creative Outhouse
  • Date Published
  • Categories Blog
  • Reading Time 6-Minute Read

With our institutions failing to deliver one consistent and unified message, who can help create a unified message? Brands.

Ever been at the top of a roller coaster and suddenly wonder, “Wait, let’s think about this for a minute?”

Too late.

That’s where we are in the COVID-19 crisis. Things are beginning to open up and some people are holding on tight, some have their hands up in the air with excitement and still others (despite any common sense) are standing up on the roller coaster (like the throngs who crowded together this past Memorial Day).

Looking for a digital agency? Post a Project

Human Behavior

The point is we’re on the ride together, folks. Where it’s going, who knows? That makes marketing and messaging risky. Normally you base it on data of current and past behavior. With an unprecedented global crisis, we have to base our messaging on something else: our knowledge of human behavior. Here are some basic human truths that might help with messaging:

The Three Yes’

Odds are you want people to take some action and/or engage with your brand in some way. If they have not in the past, you are then introducing a new behavior to them and if you want to get people to change their behavior or try something new you will need them to answer “yes” to the following three questions:

  1. Can I do this?
  2. If I do this, will it make a difference?
  3. Do people like me do this?

It’s all in there, ease of the action, identity, landscape, everything. So make sure you test the three questions with your messaging. It’s a simplified version of the Theory of Interpersonal Behavior, one that drives how we often approach messaging because it captures the essence of why humans do what we do. (There are strategies and tactics that help you get to three yes’. If you’d like to discuss them, give us a call and we can review them, no charge.)


A vital part of each of our identities is that most of us believe we are good at something. Did you know that 85% of drivers consider themselves to be “above average drivers?” That is statistically impossible. Yet we believe it. When you can link an action to a belief that reinforces someone’s intelligence or parenting abilities or any role that would be important to their identity, they will engage in that behavior. So when developing a message ask, how does your brand affect how people feel about themselves?


As all the COVID-19 commercials say, “these are uncertain times.” Right now people feel a lack of control, and it is unsettling because we need to feel we have some control over our lives. That rush on toilet paper, that was based on a familiar human reaction called Zero Risk Bias. People needed to feel they had control of something and having enough TP was it. So when you are delivering your message, make sure you offer them some control. Demonstrate, for example,  how an aspect of your product or service increases their choices. Incidentally, if you want a great example of zero risk behaviors and other fun quirks of human behavior check out Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational. It’s a hoot.

A Winning Team

Make sure your message and execution contain some social currency element that people can share to demonstrate that they are part of the crowd that is winning. This also helps create a normative. No one wants to feel as if he/she is the only one doing something.

The Right Emotions

There are certain emotions that cause a physiological response that often leads to action. These include fear, awe and laughter. That’s why people like to share things that make them angry, or give them a sense of awe or make them laugh. During tense situations, one thing that often works is humor. Granted, it can’t be just any humor. It has to land right and work to diffuse tension rather than make people angry. Check out a video we did on wearing masks (an act, which for some ridiculous reason has become political).

We Watch Each Other for Cues

We all know that Homo Sapiens are social creatures, and here is an example that is a microcosm of our times. The other day my wife and I were playing Bananagrams and we heard our old dog whining from the other room. We both knew something was wrong but did we jump up immediately? No. We looked at each other and paused for a few seconds.*

As social creatures, we look to each other to figure out how we should react to situations. This has been proven over and over in studies. They will have people sit in a room and start to blow smoke into the room through the vents. When it’s one person in a room, that person will stand up and alert people about the smoke. But when there are other people, the response is delayed because each person is looking at the others in the room to know how to react. Everyone else is doing the same thing so no one moves.

 *The dog is old and got stuck and panicked.  But he’s OK.

Right now, we’re all looking at each other wondering, what is “normal” behavior? What should “someone like me” be doing? In my opinion, we need someone to take the lead and start talking about what it takes to stay safe. Make all the inconvenient things we need to do a normative. This will be difficult because it flies in the face of what people really want—to go back to the way things were.

Authentic Messaging

With our institutions failing to deliver one consistent and unified message, who can help create a unified message?  Brands.  Brands can fill the communication gap and guide people. We need direction and reassurance and brands are in a great position to give it. Why should they? Because there is a leadership gap and it’s a great opportunity to lead. Brands that create authentic messages that connect with people right now, will see the needle move dramatically over the next year. People are hungry for messages that connect with them in a real way. They’re looking for someone to trust. It’s time to help them understand why they should trust you.

Shameless plug: If you don’t know how to create that messaging, the ideas and creative that connect and earn trust, it’s what we do best.

Rudy Fernandez

Creative Outhouse, Founder & Executive Creative Director and host, of the Marketing Upheaval podcast.

This article was originally published at