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How has the pandemic shaped how we speak to our audiences?

“How are you? I mean that, because you actually mean that at the minute. When we’re asking (I don’t know if you remember) when we’re checking in with each other, we really actually care about the answer. How are you?”

This may well be a familiar quote to you, as it’s from Laura Smyth’s ‘A message to myself in six months time’ from Nationwide’s ‘Voices’ ads.

These ads are part of a long-running series – they’ve included comedians doing 30-second bits on savings, compelling modern poetry, and a brilliant series of songs by Flo and Joan.  The pandemic ads shifted the established format, and featured a range of relatable voices describing their life in lockdown and hopes for the future.

This relatability gave the ads a real power. The previous versions had been funny, clever, and compelling – but these new ones were remarkable for their authenticity and warmth. What’s more, they weren’t trying to sell, they were seeking to offer support and solidarity.

The world has changed, and we are going through this together, Nationwide reassured us. And this shift in tone was widespread.

Soft and fluffy

Language and behaviour consultancy Schwa have undertaken a study into the tone of voice used during the pandemic by surveying brand and marketing leaders. They found that 61% of those surveyed in the UK felt that brands had become more ‘soft and fluffy’.

But what does ‘soft and fluffy’ mean? It’s often an expression of empathy. Ipsos found that “Building closeness in a world governed by fear is likely to be a winning strategy as it is time to demonstrate empathy while adopting the right tone of voice.”

The risk with ‘soft and fluffy’ is that it might sound less expert, less precise.

Forbes reported that “Customers are also used to and crave an authentic tone of voice from brands. The pandemic has put a premium on truth. Keeping consumers reliably informed has never been more vital.” Do ‘soft and fluffy’ communications sound more or less honest?

Museums have been perfectly placed to show how enhancing empathy can enrich your communications, navigating the shift in tone that the pandemic has necessitated.

A new urgency

Back in 2016, Mike Murawski spoke about the urgency of empathy in museums at MuseumNext New York.

Museums have been confronting this need for some time, and there are some excellent examples of how museums have embraced ‘soft and fluffy’ communications during the pandemic.

While reflecting on social media campaigns from the cultural sector, Eventbrite commented on the way that the Royal Academy were able to leverage their existing, well established “lighthearted, modern-day approach” to connect deeply with audiences during the pandemic; “the Royal Academy recognised that people needed more. So tweets set people a creative task to do each day, while Instagram posts encouraged the likes of meditation alongside pictures of relaxing artworks. Steering clear of simply posting images from its collection, the Royal Academy has instead focused on a relatable tone of voice, prompting conversation and laughter among its varied followers.”

And online exhibitions, particularly those responding directly to the pandemic, required a sophisticated use of tone of voice.

On the V&A’s blog, curator Kirsty Hassard explained how they approached the tone for the Pandemic Objects exhibition “Tone was discussed right from the outset of the project. We knew we couldn’t take an overly optimistic view on things – whereby we just celebrated the ingenuity of design. Some of the audience coming to the exhibition will have experienced personal loss, or be struggling with the precariousness of our times and it’s important to recognize that. We also wanted as much as possible to show the pandemic as a global experience, to amplify the voices of different communities, such as immigrants and NHS workers, whose experience of the last few months will have been dramatically different than others.”

Embedding empathy

An article in Curator: The Museum Journal took a close look at the language that museums were using in online exhibition content during the pandemic. “Whilst words such as ‘sadly,’ ‘unfortunately,’ and ‘gutting’ are used to discuss the museum closures, there are many more words making light of the situation.’ They found comments like ‘we hope you enjoy the exhibition’ are frequent, the ‘resilience’ and ‘achievement’ shown in the situation is recognised, and the closures are seen as an opportunity to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘creative.’ This reinforces the idea that museums see themselves as playing an important community role. It can be seen through the use of these terms that the museums providing online exhibition content position themselves as a place of escapism, comfort and hope in an uncertain time. In response to the pandemic, museums have emphasised their role as comforting cultural institutions, this time in a virtual space.”

And this has been seen beyond the virtual space, too. The pandemic shown how cultural organisations can show empathy not just by their words but by their deeds, for example repurposing their venues into vaccination clinics such as at Salisbury Cathedral and the recent pop-up clinic at Tate Modern.

It’s clear that empathy is vital in connecting with audiences now. And empathy can be expressed in a myriad of different ways – but to be valued and trusted by your audiences it must be rooted in authenticity. Empathy must not be a marketing gimmick for troubled times, it needs to be embedded into the organisation’s communications.

“With tone of voice, the goal is to find one that fits your brand and stick with it. So if you’re a tough, no-nonsense kind of brand, should you soften?” Nick Padmore, the Creative Director at Schwa told PR Moment. “I’d say no. By all means soften your content – give discounts to help people with money trouble, send out empathetic emails, show you’re all in it together. But do all of that in your usual, no-nonsense tone.”

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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