Rent in a Pandemic: 3 Ways to Communicate During a Crisis
A COVID-19 email from my landlord serves as an example of why we need to consider our communication strategy more than ever.
It’s rent day, the day of the month many of us must pay our landlords. Yet, this is a strange time when many of us are temporarily out of work.
I live in Ohio, a state that was prompt in slowing the spread of COVID-19. On March 15, our governor mandated the closure of dine-in restaurants. Drastically impacting the hours of 580,000 restaurant and food service employees in Ohio, according to an estimate by John Baker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.
Two days later, my landlord reached out to their tenants in an email entitled “COVID-19 Update.” It read as follows:
We are reaching out to all of our tenants due to the recent issues with COVID-19. XXX Property Management recognizes that this will be a challenging time for everyone. We hope you take the opportunity to explore assistance programs that are being offered by the government in the form of unemployment compensation and we understand the usual waiting period to receive benefits has been reduced.
We would strongly encourage all of our tenants to pay by check or money order and utilize the drop box at the back door for making rent payments. Rent will continue to be due on or before the 1st of each month. Unfortunately we are unable to void any leases or waive any rent payments.
We encourage you to utilize our on line maintenance request for any issues you may have and you may access this form by going to our web site at www.XXX.com.
Please feel free to contact us via phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX or e-mail at info@XXX.com with any questions you may have.
This was the entirety of the email. Despite Ohio’s stay-at-home order issued five days later, no additional correspondence has followed.
As coronavirus continued to threaten the health of our communities, non-essential businesses closed and more people were temporarily out of work. The unemployment benefits system became bogged down by the surge, resulting in delayed financial relief. Ineligible for benefits, contract employees and self-employed workers were left fumbling for what to do. This includes hair stylists and barbers who are considered independent contractors. Out of work, they may feel added pressure as they consider how to pay rent for both their living space and their work space.
Today, because I am fortunate to lean on my family for financial support, I will be able to pay my rent. But not everyone has that support.
My landlord manages over 500 properties. They are in a position of power and reach. As Spiderman taught us, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”
When in a position of power, the way you communicate is more critical. You hold the ability to use that power to soothe fears and elicit hope. You can use your power to do good or to command compliance. But also remember, how you communicate today will be remembered when the crisis passes.
Legally, my landlord has every right to expect rent promptly on the 1st without exception. They are under no obligation to waive rent, but they can communicate in a way that allows their tenants to feel supported and cared for.
Imagine you have been laid off. Imagine you are now without income and you get an email from your landlord or mortgage company like the one above. It’s focus is on ensuring you pay rent. It tells you what it cannot do. It includes no guidance other than to research how to get assistance. The email acknowledges you might struggle to get aid, but it doesn’t offer solutions or offer to waive late fees for a limited number of days. It doesn’t offer an alternative suggestion to support tennants’ health, like implementing online payments. It actually never uses the word “safety” or “health” once.
Essentially, the email says to tenants, “Yes, the world is in struggle, but we are business as usual. Bring by our money.” Even the suggestion about maintenance is nothing outside of normal practices.
How could they have done better? How can you- as a professional or a business owner- do better?
Knowing your words today can impact your future, how can you communicate with more compassion in a crisis?
1. Put your audience first.
When communicating with others during difficult times, remember your audience. We are a scared, stressed audience. When people are stressed and scared, sometimes they freeze and struggle to know practical steps.
You, as the communicator, are also stressed. When you try to communicate while focused on your own sense of security, your message can seem self-absorbed and unfeeling. It is clear to me that my landlord is stressed about their own survival. They probably don’t intend to come across as unfeeling. However, by focusing on what they need from us, rather than how they are supporting us, they fail to connect.
Don’t write with the focus on what you need your audience to do for you. Write with the focus on how you are working together. Yes, you may need money to survive as a business, but you won’t reach your audience if they feel you only want to take and not give. You can reach your audience more effectively through a positive message on how you are also supporting them. Your support in minimizing the spread and flattening the curve is important to your audience.
Ask yourself, what are my audience’s most pressing concerns? How does my message help them? When you address what matters to your audience and make it essential to your message, you can be more persuasive.
Right now, people are scared and stressed. By empathizing with your audience and showing a genuine care in their well-being, you can encourage a more receptive audience. People are willing to listen to someone who seems to be on their team.
2. Minimize the mountain.
When you are considering your audience, also recognize the challenges they may have in reaching your goal. How can you help them climb their mountain? How can you reduce the obstacles that inhibit your audience from following your message?
In the case of my landlord, what could they do to support their tenants?
Waiving late fees for 5 days would be a sign of compassion, if it’s possible. But even if they are unable to alleviate financial stress, they can speak to how they are part of the solution.
As a landlord, they can discuss how they are prioritizing and supporting their client’s health and safety. They could implement online payments to safely pay rent at home. They can share how they will not be showing occupied residencies to future tenants.
My landlord could also compose a list of tips for keeping the home as safe as possible. Ohio’s Department of Health has one already created here. Or they could share an article on managing stress from a reliable source. Here’s one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you cannot provide material support, you can provide emotional or informational support. Find a way to lend a hand to those you are trying to communicate with. Your audience will feel like you are on their side, and, thus, you may find more support. By helping minimize the mountain between your audience and your goal, you are more likely to find success in your crisis communications.
3. Be transparent.
Be honest with what you can and cannot do. Don’t make false promises, but also don’t withhold on sharing what you are unable to do.
People appreciate communication. And they appreciate honesty. If your message isn’t favorable, be transparent in why that decision was made. Avoid “because that’s the rule” or “because I said so” reasoning. That feels condescending. If you cannot offer additional help, explain your limitations in a concise and professional manner.
Avoid transparency written in a defensive tone. When you write like you are expecting resistance and judgement, you speak like your arms are crossed in front of your chest. To you, you are protecting yourself. To your audience, you look like you are hiding something.
Instead, imagine yourself speaking with your arms wide and hands open, palms up. You’ve nothing to hide. Instead, you are here to help, as best you can.
Whether or not you are being transparent, it’s a transparent world.
People are watching. (They have a lot of time to do that right now.) If you are a business or a leader, they are noticing how you help. They are noticing who donates computers to kids who need access to online learning. They are noticing who is paying essential employees $2 more per hour. They are noticing who is delivering free meals to those in need. They are noticing who is creatively connecting with isolated, home-bound senior citizens.
They are also noticing who is turning a profit from the global pandemic.
My landlord is not trying to take advantage. They are just trying to continue to function as normal. However, when the world is turned upside down, even normal can appear opportunistic. By communicating with empathy, support, and transparency, businessescan show they too are part of the solution and are doing their part in this pandemic as best they can.
Eventually, we will get through this. We will get to the other side. When we do, businesses and leaders will still need to appeal to their audience. However, their audiences will no longer be governed by the survival mode necessitated by this crisis. Through more deliberate communication today, businesses and leaders will be rewarded with loyal consumers and voters in the future.
In a time of short-term crisis and fear, communicate with the goal of long-term success. Communicate with compassion. As we struggle with our health as people and as businesses, remember the goal is to survive today and thrive tomorrow. Together, let’s work to ensure we all achieve that goal.
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