Communicating re-opening will be much, much harder than closure, says Kate Fielding-Cox, who proposes four key principles that every venue should bear in mind when preparing to welcome the public back.
As governments around the world grapple with the challenge of reopening the economy, they need to recognise an important truth: they weren’t the ones that closed it down. Data shows economic sentiment deteriorating even before lockdown and anecdotally many will be aware that parents were keeping children out of school for days and even weeks before they were closed. Whether it’s the local primary school, Nando’s or Primark, people will be factoring in much more than whether somewhere is open in deciding whether to go back.
Audience polls indicate that the return to venues and attractions will be tempered by some understandable concerns. The ALVA Attractions Recovery Tracker and Indigo’s After the Interval National Audience Survey are packed with useful – and sobering – insights. Indigo’s data shows less than a fifth would return just because venues re-open, and ALVA’s Wave 3 research continues to show significant numbers ‘unlikely to want to visit for some time’ across all types of attractions. But while some will undoubtedly hold off visiting, there are indications that others – particularly loyal audiences – will be keener to come back, with the right assurances.
For arts and heritage venues, this means that reopening the doors will be a much harder task than closing them, and good communication will be vital in wooing uncertain audiences. Huge efforts are being made across the sector to devise protocols for safe opening – but gold-standard health and safety will be useless if people don’t know what’s in place, and either don’t come, or don’t follow procedures on site.
So, how can venues steer a course through the challenges and communicate in a clear, consistent and engaging way? There are four key principles:
- Focus energy on the early days
The initial period of opening will be the toughest and will see venues facing the greatest scrutiny. But it will also be the time when teams are learning what works and what doesn’t. Plan to have extra capacity to respond during this time, make sure you’ve got ways of listening to visitors and front of house teams, and flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.
Booking systems will offer potential for managing visitors’ expectations before arrival – something the National Trust has been careful to do during their phased reopening, providing detailed information on their website and social media. Some schools preparing for reopening created short films to give pupils and parents the chance to see in advance how new measures would work. Visitors worry about others not following rules and these fears may be heightened by changes to the two-metre social distancing guideline – so it will make sense to raise awareness of enforcement plans, like Ikea’s planned ‘social distance wardens’. Maintaining trust will be the crucial factor – and positive word of mouth from early visitors could pay dividends.
- Aim for joined-up messaging
The government’s handling (or mishandling) of communications through the pandemic has filled many column inches. Among the most egregious own goals has been the failure to work with partners – whether devolved nations, regional mayors or industry leaders – leading to confused and inconsistent public health messages about changes to lockdown rules. Museums and galleries can learn the lessons from these failures, and prioritise consistent positions and messages. Co-ordinated approaches, like the proposed ‘kite-mark’ being developed by the tourist boards, offer the best chance to reassure visitors, for whom messages will gain increased credibility with repetition.
Liaising with neighbouring attractions and businesses also offers potential to build confidence and create a joined-up offer for visitors. With the pandemic forcing us to stay closer to home and creating heightened interest in local areas, cross-promotion could pay dividends for many venues – and a generous approach to signposting other offers is likely to chime well with the current spirit of mutual support.
- Don’t dilute your brand
It’s vital that early visitors not only feel safe, but get what they came for – inspiration, fun, contemplation and more – and that means finding ways to keep your brand front and centre of the experience. Paying attention to brand personality and tone of voice in your messaging and signage can deflect from the discomfort of social-distance and hygiene measures, and refocus audiences on the core experience whilst growing their relationship and connection with the venue. Auckland Museum’s signage was rightly lauded on social media for achieving enviable clarity whilst packing in several layers of on-brand puns, and the Old Masters gallery in Dresden used Adam & Eve to model masks and social distancing. Meanwhile, the Art Institute of Chicago are working up ideas to incorporate brand-aligned masks into staff uniforms.
- Look after your people
As ever, the most important brand ambassadors will be your own people – not only those returning to open buildings, but also staff working from home and on furlough leave – many managing work stress, fear of redundancy and all the various personal challenges this crisis has wrought. Corporate social responsibility begins at home, with care for employees’ safety and wellbeing, and the media has paid close attention to the likes of Amazon, Sports Direct, Wetherspoons, who have been cavalier on this front. But beyond this, internal audiences need to understand and feel part of the big picture. Leaders like Jacinda Ardern, who can share openly the challenges and decisions they are facing and communicate with empathy will be able to maintain trust and energise action.
Reopening will not mark an end to this crisis. Reduced audiences, revenues and potential rolling closures will demand radical rethinking of how cultural venues deliver their mission. Bringing staff into these strategic conversations will equip them to tell a positive story about the future to visitors, audiences and supporters, whether or not they come back through the doors.
We can use this moment to ask what connections, opportunities and dialogue might be possible in future. To ask one another – colleagues and audiences alike – what does it actually mean to be ‘open’?
Kate Fielding-Cox runs Fielding Communications