By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur.
How do we replace the smile? What can public relations (PR) do to create an antidote to pandemic fatigue?
I raised these questions because, during my trip back from a week’s holiday, my family and I had to take several tests to return to the UK. I realised that the whole experience of going on a holiday has become quite stressful. And as I’m someone who doesn’t normally suffer from stress — certainly not from travel stress — travelling has made me a little bit nervous. It’s not because I’m worried about getting sick, but because of the many different rules and regulations to be followed, and applications and forms to be downloaded, completed, and re-uploaded, all within specific deadlines. Just to go on vacation, it feels like you need to have a degree in administration.
In my latest The UnNoticed Entrepreneur episode, which I recorded in Fuerteventura, Spain, I shared some thoughts about travelling — and why business owners and entrepreneurs should try to reassure their staff, partners, and customers that it’s safe to come back and do business with you.
Reassurance Amidst Pandemic Fatigue
I’ve been reading about pandemic fatigue and now, people are feeling demotivated and struggling to keep up with some of the rules required to stay abreast of vaccines. In England, we have the so-called “ping-demic” wherein people are starting to disengage themselves from the National Health Service (NHS) app because they’re afraid of getting pinged or alerted to self-isolate.
If you’re staying in the country and you don’t need to travel, then you can start to detach yourself from the instruments that the government uses to stay in touch with you and track you and the people around you. However, if you’re travelling or need to go outside of your immediate bubble, you need to have some reassurance. What seems to be the watchword now around travel and business, in general, is that reassurance is going to be the number one message that you have to give to anybody. Reassurance is important because nothing will happen unless you feel safe.
Image from Unsplash
This is not just about the reassurance for you, but the reassurance that you can provide to other people — including your family — who have different thresholds of anxiety. We’ve seen during the pandemic that we are all interconnected: People’s behaviours are impacted by the behaviours of those around them.
Anxiety Brought Forth by the Pandemic
Despite the growing prevalence of vaccines and double jabs, there are still signs of people getting anxious about COVID. For example, many are constantly checking their temperatures. If their children have a cold because of a friend that has a runny nose, people start to worry about whether they got COVID or not. Before we only used to think that it could be just a cold or flu — you can simply blow your nose and you’ll be fine.
Now, there’s also this need for obsessive cleaning. It doesn’t matter where you’re going because you’re always supposed to have sanitising solutions in your hand. I worry that children today won’t be able to go anywhere without thinking about sanitation, hygiene, and the need for fluids and sterilisations among others.
As we travel and go back to work, we as entrepreneurs need to communicate and reassure people.
In America, around 19% of the adult population suffers from anxiety disorder according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This is higher in women and yet, it’s the women who are responsible for the administration of many tasks — for example, family travel. A group in the US called Teladoc further says that now that the pandemic is being relaxed, people are travelling more. And this has created a certain level of anxiety all of a sudden.
Image from Unsplash
As entrepreneurs and business owners, we have to think about every stage of the journey that our customers, staff, and partners have with us and how we can reassure them.
In the active communications index (ACI) that I previously talked about, there are three elements of communication: content, channel, and consistency. When it comes to content, all those that we create have to be reassuring. All the channels have got to be active as well. And, most importantly, they have to be consistent over time.
Facial Expression: One of the Most Obvious Forms of Reassurance
Today, what I’ve also noticed is the impact of people’s behaviour. For example, when they’re travelling to work, they’re going to be more stressed when they arrive than they would have been before.
I mentioned it because the other day when I was waiting for a coffee and I had my mask on, a man behind me tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I jumped the queue. I did not actually jump the queue because my wife was in front of me and we were getting our drinks together. Any of the normal facial expressions that reassure people are not possible to be seen now because of the mask.
iMotions, a US-based company, offers a technology application that provides and measures 20 different facial expressions. There are seven core emotions: joy, anger, fear, disgust, contempt, sadness, and surprise. And these emotions are some of the basic indices of whether the people around us are happy or not with our behaviour.
The man in the queue was obviously not happy with my behaviour. In the past, he might have given me a frown. But with the masks, I could only see his eyes and his brows. I couldn’t see his mouth. Now, we all have these expressions of emotions that can no longer be seen because of the masks that we’re wearing.
When talking about the need for reassurance, we should think about how we can provide it when one of the most obvious forms of reassurance — the facial expression — is no longer available.
Image from Unsplash
On VeryWell Mind, Kendra Cherry and Dr. Steven Gans wrote about how different parts of our facial expressions communicate different things. For example, when a person looks directly into your eyes while you’re having a conversation, it indicates that they’re interested and they’re paying attention. But when there’s prolonged eye contact, it can feel threatening. On the other hand, breaking eye contact and frequently looking away might indicate that the person is distracted.
When I and my family were checking in at the booking gate at the airport, a lot of the procedures have become automated. However, there are still people on site to help. If I’m a customer and they’re not looking at me, it would be hard for me to know that they’re engaged. If the other person is blinking, it could mean that they may just have tired eyes — though it could also be a way of attracting attention.
The Challenge of Not Seeing the Mouth
What’s particularly interesting are the mouth and the smile. Kendra and Dr. Steven said that a smile can be used to express different emotions. While it can be genuine, some smiles express false happiness, sarcasm, or even cynicism. There are also studies about how smiles can be considered genuine or not depending on how one’s face is wrinkled.
If we have a business and we’re engaging with younger people or people from different cultures, we’ll have more opportunities for miscommunication. Again, this comes down to reassurance.
Pursed or tightened lips can indicate distaste or disapproval. If someone’s wearing a mask, you won’t be able to tell that. Both I and the man in the coffee line couldn’t see if any of us were lip-biting, even though we were not lip-biting.
However, people sometimes bite their lips if they’re worried, anxious, or stressed. When they’re waiting in a queue, normally, we’d have an idea about that because we can see from their facial expressions what was going on. But now, we’re not able to see those.
What about if they deliberately cover the mouth? In Asia, people cover their mouths when they’re smiling or laughing because they’re trying to hide their teeth.
Image from Unsplash
There are many aspects in which the face will help the customer express to us what they’re feeling; therefore we can display empathy. As service providers, we can also display our sense of self-confidence or we can reassure them. These things are not possible now.
Replacing Physiological and Emotional Cues
Today, the question is: To what degree does your company rely on human expression for communication?
If it does, I’d say that it’s worth thinking about the level of anxiety that has increased due to COVID. But what can be used to replace basic physiological and emotional cues?
In Singapore, after you use toilets, there’s a little bank of emoticons that allows you to say if you’re satisfied or not. It gives you the ability to smile or frown electronically. This also happens at the passport gates in China wherein you can give feedback on the performance of the official who stamped your passport.
Now, do we have some mechanisms to reassure people and let them know that we’re there for them?
Looking at what our resort was doing, I could say that they were performing a great job. There’s signage everywhere (including the pool and the restaurants) and I was also able to receive updates through multi-modal communications (e.g., SMS, email). Everything that could reassure me that it was a safe place for me and my family, was there.
I wanted to share this message because while I was on a holiday, I was thinking about how to communicate; about what are some of the feelings and emotions that people go through when they travel or get to you.
If it’s online, things are different altogether. There are live chats and avatars. You can also use videos, which are important because people communicate so much by the way that we look at each other.
Image from Unsplash
If nearly 20% of the population has chronic anxiety, it could mean that 20% of your customers or staff are also feeling the same way. As entrepreneurs, we must ask ourselves how we can use communications to reassure them that they’re safe and that they can engage with us — that we all can get on with our lives, businesses, and workplaces. We need this answered so that we can move forward towards a better, more natural life.
If you’re looking at people around you, make sure that you give them some reassurance — that things are under control and things are going to get better. Because as an entrepreneur, it’s part of our job to give other people reassurance and guidance that we’re learning and working towards a better future for them.
This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here.