Accountants are uniquely placed to offer their support and guidance as the coronavirus throws the world into disarray. But what’s the best approach to communicating?

There’s no denying it: we’re going through a generation-defining moment of not only national but global crisis, with the ongoing march of the coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

Many of us who can are working from home. Those in healthcare and delivery are working overtime. Others are obliged to keep turning up to work at shopping centres where footfall has collapsed, or to pubs and cafes the public has been advised by the Government not to visit.

The anxiety is palpable, not only among employees worried about paying their rent in April but also business people whose risk registers, be they ever so pessimistic, probably didn’t include a month or more of social lockdown.

But what should you, as accountants, do to address this anxiety? Tackle it head on? Reassure people that life goes on and it’s business as usual for you? Or treat it as a sales opportunity?

I’ll spoil the punchline now: definitely not the latter.

Reassurance and support

As the scale of the problem has become apparent in the past week, from a communications point of view, it’s been grimly fascinating to see the tone shift.

On the day of the Budget, Wednesday 11 March, some accountants were still saying “Get a grip!” and virtually rolling their eyes on social media.

Through the weekend, others were talking about the need to support local businesses, and posting pictures of themselves out in bars, pubs and restaurants.

The turning point seemed to be the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday 16 March, in the first of a series of newly-instituted daily press conferences:

Last week we asked everyone to stay at home if you had one of two key symptoms: a high temperature or a new and continuous cough… Today, we need to go further, because… it looks as though we’re now approaching the fast growth part of the upward curve. [Now] is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel… We need people to start working from home where they possibly can. And you should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.

As businesses in the hospitality and creative sectors expressed frank terror, and other SMEs began to realise how bumpy things were about to become for the UK economy, the canniest accountants stepped up.

They began to talk about supporting their clients, highlighting the practical things SMEs can do to cushion their businesses from the shock, from calling HMRC to negotiate deferred payments to arranging credit facilities with banks.

This approach is effective because it’s not about selling or pitching. There’s not necessarily any immediate financial benefit to an accountant in facilitating a meeting between a client and their bank, or pointing them to official guidance.

What it does effectively is position those accountants as caring advisers – calm heads in troubled times who can put an arm round your shoulders and reassure you it will all be OK.

The accountants who’ve done this well have one key advantage: they’re adept at empathising and, more importantly, at demonstrating that empathy in their words and actions.

Authenticity and authority

Getting across to clients that you’re genuinely concerned isn’t a tickbox exercise.

I could tell you to make it personal – to talk about you, I, us, and put names and faces to anything your firm puts out.

I could point out that acknowledging your own anxieties is a good way to build connections.

And I might also underline that now, more than ever, it’s time to avoid any tendency to professional aloofness in your writing.

Ultimately, though, what matters is being authentic. Look at anything you’ve put together and ask yourself, does this seem sincere? Even better, give it to someone else – someone with fresh eyes – and ask them the same question.

Another trick is to read it aloud – does it sound like a person speaking to another human being?

Finally, it can help to picture a particular person as your audience rather than an amorphous mass of clients. Think of a particular client, someone you like and feel especially concerned for, and write with them in mind.

Topical beats perfect

Because this story is moving so quickly, it’s important to keep any content you produce up to date, and to react promptly to developments.

The chances are that your clients would rather have your advice on how to access a new source of government support in a quick social media post today than in a painstakingly perfect blog post next Wednesday.

A good strategy is probably:

  • instant reaction on social media with link to news coverage
  • more considered reaction on your firm’s blog the next day
  • a detailed round-up of all the development in a newsletter weekly, fortnightly or monthly.

Avoid exploitation

Taking advantage of a crisis to push your services really isn’t, as they say, ‘a good look’.

Popping up in client inboxes advertising your insolvency service, or offering to manage statutory redundancy payments as part of your payroll service, is probably just a little too blunt at this exact moment.

After all, you don’t want to be perceived as akin to the price-gouger hoarding hand-sanitiser – as exploiting the situation for gain.

You’ll certainly want to avoid using the word coronavirus as a clickbait. If you’re going to address the subject, do so sincerely and thoughtfully.

For example, if you find yourself tempted to write something like, “As coronavirus quarantine bites, what better time to learn Xero?” – don’t.

It’s not business as usual

Equally, ignoring the situation altogether, pushing on with scheduled blog posts and social media, could reflect badly on your accountancy firm.

Many people are undoubtedly already weary of hearing about it, and find the rolling coverage and non-stop opinion mentally exhausting. They might even have made a conscious choice to mute or block such content in their feeds.

In most cases, though, sincere, measured advice based on experience and expertise will continue to be welcome.

At PracticeWeb, we’ve decided that the issue is too important to ignore and reviewed our content calendar for the next three months.

Given the non-stop flow of new business support measures emerging from government, we want to make sure that subscribers to our monthly branded content bundles get at least one piece of substantial content on the subject each month, and that the daily news feed we supply reflects the pre-eminence of the issue.

We’re also going to produce some one-off video and reference resources to help our clients help their clients.

Coronavirus isn’t the only story, of course – did you notice that changes to off-payroll working in the private sector (IR35) got quietly delayed until April 2021? – but a news feed that doesn’t acknowledge it’s prime importance would seem, frankly, a little peculiar.

Pulling together

It’s in everyone’s interests to keep the wheels of commerce turning in the UK and help SMEs feel to some degree in control of their destinies.

Clear, to-the-point information that helps them access the support they need, and make confident business planning decisions, is a vital part of that.

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