Lessons From My Alma Mater: What Princeton’s COVID-19 Letter Teaches Companies About Tone

Little is certain in the age of coronavirus. Housebound, the human species craves clarity, connection—a cure. Fear is abundant and answers are few. But for communications professionals, one fact couldn’t be clearer: tone is everything. 

Gone are the days of business as usual. With mindsets, priorities, and behavior shifting on a global scale, content that would have been appropriate pre-pandemic is dreadfully tone-deaf today. Around the world, companies are left wondering: What can be said at a time like this? 

I recently read a letter from Chris Eisgruber, the president of Princeton University. Amidst crisis, his words provide welcome clarity—calling on a set of shared values to create meaning from madness. Here are four lessons from my alma mater.

Show sincere empathy. 

My colleagues and I understand how painful these changes are. Like you, we cherish the personal relationships, the collective projects, and the special experiences that this campus facilitates and enables.”

Rising infection rates. Creeping unemployment. A collapsing economy. Humanity is suffering—and as a leader, you must bear your audience’s burdens. Acknowledge their emotions by putting empathy at the center of all communications, and remember: Feeling pain doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Admit to not having all the answers. 

“Many more questions and challenges lie ahead as we confront this virus. We will continue to communicate with you as we go forward; I hope that you will continue to check the University website on a regular basis.”

Great leaders embrace uncertainty. Where others might adopt an air of false confidence, President Eisgruber admits his limitations (and, in doing so, earns readers’ respect). Audiences don’t need empty promises. They need someone who’s willing to speak the truth.

You won’t have all the answers—but don’t stay silent for fear of not finding the right words.

Call out the greater cause. 

“We often point to the words on the seal in front of Nassau Hall as being emblematic of our University’s spirit: In the nation’s service and the service of humanity. In the weeks ahead we will all have the opportunity to live that ideal, often through the small, daily choices we make.”

By pointing to the ethos of Princeton, President Eisgruber unites the university community under a set of shared values. Every organization has a mission: a reason for being that compels them to survive and thrive through any tragedy. In uncertain times, it’s crucial to remind supporters what you stand for.

Princeton operates “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity”—and with that mission statement in mind, readers rest assured knowing that each individual sacrifice contributes to a greater good. 

Don’t go dark.

In the age of coronavirus, staying silent is the easiest option. But the most admirable aspect of President Eisgruber’s letter is that he penned it in the first place. “You need to communicate early and often,” notes one Harvard Business Review article. “You will sometimes get it right, and you will often get it wrong, but it is still better to be as transparent as you can.” 

We may be housebound, but nothing can confine human connection. 

Now’s our chance to prove it.

At MarketSmiths, we’ve always believed in “Copywriting for Humans.” Recently, our mission statement has taken on new meaning. As COVID-19 changes everyday realities, we’re honored to create content that inspires clarity and connection in communities around the world. Words matter, now more than ever. If you can’t find the right ones, we want to help.

Briana is a writer, wanderer, and wonderer (who isn’t always this alliterative). An unshakeable sense of curiosity has led her everywhere from far-flung coastlines to the classrooms of Princeton University. Steadfast in the pursuit of purpose, she is happiest when exploring nature, reading, and putting pen to paper.

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