WordSouth developed the industry’s first COVID-19 resource kit for utility communicators. CEO Stephen V. Smith joins the show to discuss the free kit and strategies for communicating in this unprecedented time.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: What went into the WordSouth COVID-19 Resource Kit? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. I’m your host, Andy Johns, with WordSouth. And I’m joined this time by WordSouth CEO Stephen Smith. So, Stephen, thanks for joining me.
Stephen Smith: Excited to do this with you today, Andy. Thank you.
Andy Johns: Great. Well, this is going to be a little bit of a different podcast. Usually it’s either myself or Stephen as the host on here, interviewing somebody from one of the industries that WordSouth serves. But instead of a special guest today, it’s kind of like an extra co-host. So maybe that didn’t come out right, Stephen, but you’re special in your own way. But this is our first special quarantined edition of StoryConnect: The Podcast. Between the two of us, there are quite a few dogs around the two houses, so hopefully they’ll behave. But Stephen, how are you guys doing in the quarantine?
Stephen Smith: We’re making it great, Andy. There’s not a tremendous amount of difference for us, because we work from the office some and we work from home some. And so spending more time at home, of course, as the office is closed. And continuing to work, thanks in large part to our broadband connection from our local telecommunications cooperative, FTC, and staying connected with the team and with the world. And things are moving right along at a steady clip.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. They’ve been a busy few days here for sure. We’ll get into a little bit about why that is in a minute. As Stephen mentioned that at WordSouth, we’ve all worked remotely for years in most cases. So we were a little bit more prepared for this than some. But in some way or another, the COVID-19 virus is affecting just about everybody by this point. There are two big ways that WordSouth has been affected. The first was having to reschedule our StoryConnect conference. It was set for March 18 to 20. And now we are working on some dates in November to be at the same location. All the details there. We’ll have some of that coming out as soon as we get everything confirmed. The second has been the COVID-19 utility communicators response kit, a resource kit that we put together at WordSouth. Stephen, do you mind summarizing a little bit about what all is in that kit?
Stephen Smith: Yes, I’ll be glad to do that. I would like to say you did mention StoryConnect: The Conference. As we were nearing those dates, we spent a lot of time as a management team discussing what we were going to, what kind of decision we were going to make on whether to postpone that or not. It was a tough decision, but not a hard decision. As we moved closer to that date, we felt like it wasn’t in the best interest of our clients, who were coming from really all over the country to be with us and our sponsors. And, you know, funny as it turned out, if we had waited just a few days — we made that decision in early March — and if we waited just a few days, that decision would have been made for us. After we decided to cancel our conference, then all the pro sporting events started canceling. And we realized that, yeah, we were a little ahead of the curve there. And, you know, as things really started escalating after that, we sort of turned our focus away from the conference, and we were realizing that this was rapidly becoming a situation where our clients were going be facing some real challenges in how to communicate with their customers. And that’s really where the idea for the resource kit came about. We realized that there were some common denominators — some things that everyone needed to be talking about — even if they were going to be customized for their particular company.
Just in quick summary, that kit contains general things that will help people, the general population, such as working from home tips. As you mentioned, we’ve been a remote workforce by and large for several years now, and we’ve worked through a lot of the challenges of that. And for many, many people, that’s a new thing that they’re having to learn how to navigate. So there’s some work from home tips that our clients — the utilities, electrics and broadband providers — can be sharing. [There’s also] energy efficiency tips and some ideas on curbing boredom. We have some cyber security precautions, which are particularly important during this time. I just received an e-mail this weekend from what looked like to be American Express, asking me to click on the link and to verify all my account information or the account was going to be shut down for security reasons. During this time, it was a fairly convincing email. Those are getting better and better. So we have some of those kinds of tips that our clients can share. But also, there’s some components of this kit that are real critical information. Tools for helping utilities communicate with their customers about how they are responding to the crisis at hand. And all the changes that the pandemic itself — the CDC guidelines, the state level shut down orders — are all forcing upon them.
We have a guide in there that helps utilities screen service requests, especially the broadband providers. You know, those technicians are going out, knocking on that door, going into that home to either setup new service or possibly repair something if they’re having trouble with their service and being in real close contact. And so we realized that people needed a guide when that call comes in, a way to screen that and determine, “is this an emergency?” Or “When do we send a technician?” And if we do, “here are some guidelines.” And of course, things like communicating, how they can pay their bill. You know, there’s a lot of lobbies closed now and maybe some drive-throughs are open, but they’re really encouraging people to stay home. And so you have a lot of ways to pay, and so we developed that. You know, these companies know these things. But to just suddenly be bombarded with all these changes so quickly, we just felt like we had a role to play in helping people communicate those things. And in addition to some of that, we have plenty of artwork, social media graphics and things like that to help support this messaging as they push this out, particularly on their websites and through their social media.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. As I was looking over the lists, I believe there are 17 items up there as of now. And that will change as we’re going through and adding stuff. The most popular items on there — in terms of the clicks and the metrics behind it — are the social media posts right there at number one. That service policy is number two. Those screening questions you mentioned are number three. The response policies are number four. And then that FCC pledge, some sample text there about the Keep America Connected pledge, is number five. So some great resources, obviously. And it’s fun to see how the work that we’re doing can help folks communicate in this time when there’s a whole lot going on that’s out of the ordinary. So, it’s exciting. So whether or not someone has gotten into the specific files in the kit and gotten into the resources there, what are some overarching guidelines or advice for communicating with members or customers at a time like this that you would give to folks?
Stephen Smith: Well, I think we start with the basics of you need to help people understand what to expect. You know, the unknown is what gives us the most anxiety. And for most of us alive today, we’ve never seen anything like this. History gives us glimpses, we have some lessons, you know, during tumultuous times in our country and in the world. But, we haven’t lived through anything like this. And so not knowing what to expect, people are confused. They have anxiety. And, you know, they depend on these critical services that the broadband providers, telecommunications companies, the electric companies [provide]. They depend on those critical services, especially now that they’re sheltering in place. You know, so to speak, working from home, they depend on those. And people need to understand how these current events are impacting those services. You know, we’re storytellers here at WordSouth. And one thing we like to say, and it’s something that we strongly believe in, is that in the absence of information, people will create their own narrative. You have to give people information. You have to supply them with that narrative. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it shouldn’t be complicated. But people need to understand what is happening. They need to understand what you as a utility — and a communicator there at that utility, electric or telco — they need to understand what you’re doing about this situation from your perspective. And they need to know how their service from you is going to be impacted. And they need to know how to do business with you. And how does the way they do business with you is going to be changing for the short term. Just in an overarching way as you asked there, you need to give them information. And you can’t rely on…there is no such thing as, “we have communicated. Check that box off.” Communication is a constant, constant task. You have to just continually do. And, you know, it’s something we’re fond of saying that when you get tired of hearing yourself talk about something, that’s really when a lot of your customers and members are just beginning to get that message. It’s so important that you don’t stop communicating, because there’s no such thing as having communicated. It’s a continual process.
Andy Johns: And I would say at a time like this, when there’s so much noise out there — everybody’s coming out with closure notices and whether it’s the local restaurants or local businesses, there’s so much out there that’s going on — whether one post in somebody’s social media feed, even if the algorithms allow that to go through, there’s so much other noise out there that they’re going to need that to be reinforced. And as you were saying, keep going. The more the merrier.
Stephen Smith: So for sure. I mean, “it was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” That is something that we can apply to social media today. It is the best of things, and it’s the worst of things. It’s a wonderful tool in a situation like this where these companies can get their information directly to their customers very, very quickly. But they’re also throwing that out into an environment where people are copying and pasting and sharing posts that have so much misinformation. And so it is a challenge to rise above all that noise. And one of the ways you do that is just keep telling that same story over and over and over.
Andy Johns: Exactly. Well, it’s been fun to see the staff. You know, most people here at WordSouth at some part or another have played some kind of role in putting this kit together. Did the kit evolve over time as we kept putting it together and putting it out there, or was it mostly all mapped out? Did you have a vision for exactly how all this is going to fall together since the beginning?
Stephen Smith: Oh, it was definitely the former. We started out with the basics, things that we knew people were going to be clamoring for. The screening calls were fairly early — the service calls, how to screen for those. Ways to pay, you know, that was pretty obvious. A press release that people could customize for themselves, announcing whatever changes that might be taking place in the way they’re serving their customers. Some of those were obvious at the beginning, but as we started sharing this… And an important note, we didn’t just share that with our client base, but we just made this available free, behind no paywall, behind no capture of emails. We just put that out there to help. But as that started happening, we asked people in the emails if there was anything else. And then certainly our account managers, assistant editors, photographers and anyone working with directly with our clients, you know, as you’re sharing [this with] them and helping them execute this at their local level, see if there’s anything that’s coming from them. And our clients really helped us develop more content for this kit, because we had several who said “this is great. We appreciate it. Do you have anything on X?” And they would have a topic that they were particularly needing help communicating, and so we would develop that for them in particular, and then generalize it enough to add it to the kit. Because we knew that if one company was having a struggle communicating that, then that probably was not an isolated event, and there were others out there who needed the same help with the same subject.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. You know, and that kind of is where it is good to have a partner like WordSouth that works with so many different companies and has been around the block a few times in the couple industries that we serve. But as we’re talking about all the work that goes into something like this… I may put you on the spot a little bit here, which is always risky to do when you’re interviewing your boss, but here we go. I’ve heard the phrase before, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” And so when I Googled that I was trying to find out who said it, I thought it would be, you know, John Acuff or Zig Ziglar. It turns out, it’s actually The Joker from The Dark Knight, the Heath Ledger version. But I’m sure it’s probably been in the other business experts have said it, too. Maybe The Joker got it from Dave Ramsey or something. But if your staff is investing all this time, if the company as a whole is investing these hours into a project like this, why give it away for free?
Stephen Smith: Well, that’s great question, Andy. You know, I’ve thought about this, that these are certainly unusual times. They’re certainly trying times. And you know, there’s an old saying that goes “bloom where you’re planted.”
Andy Johns: Did The Joker say that one too?
Stephen Smith: Probably. It could have been Batman. I don’t know. But, you know, “bloom where you’re planted.” What does that mean in this situation? We are a communications company, a group of storytellers, who help our people communicate. And we can not, as a company, switch to manufacturing masks or ventilators. We can’t retool to add some personal protection equipment to those front line workers in the health care industry. We are not going to drive ambulances or develop that vaccine or do anything along those lines that is going to have that kind of impact. And so we look at, what can we do here? And by helping those people who, you know, in a way our clients are on the front lines as well. You know, they’re not in they’re not in the ER; they’re not in the ambulance. But they are providing those critical services. And know if the listeners would just think for a moment, “what would it be like if for one day, I’m not going to have electricity? Or for one day I’m not going to have Internet service?” Or, of course, today broadband means so much more than the Internet. And I know a lot of people are probably like me, in our home, broadband drives everything. We get our television over the top. And certainly we connect with our coworkers via broadband, and we get our information across the broadband network. We stay in touch with family through that. I mean, it’s so critical. Imagine just one day being shut down on something like that.
And when you really start to think about how critical that is, our clients are providing that service that — it’s undeniable — that’s front line as well. And we can come along and play a role to help ease some of that burden and ease some of that anxiety over this new thing that has been dumped into our laps. You know, these communicators are looking, and they’re saying, “already I’m a staff of one.” We work with a lot of companies that their communications staff may only have one or two people in it at most. That’s the norm. You have a communications department, and that’s unusual among a lot of the companies that we work with. And so you take these people who are already very, very busy, and now you have this entirely new thing dumped in their lap, and it’s like we can’t just work on this in our spare time. This is something that is of critical importance, and we have to be on top of that. And for us to be able to come in and provide them all a set of tools, that kit, a whole tool box to help them not have to make it up, to help them not have to start from scratch, then I think we are operating even closer to the heart of our mission.
And you’ve heard me say this a lot, Andy, in the years that you’ve been here. We just want to be a blessing. And I think that this kit is a manifestation of that. And it’s our way, however small that might be, of helping in the greater good, of doing our part of blooming where we’re planted and of us providing help during this time. You know, we keep hearing the term “unprecedented,” and I hope that remains the case. I hope we never see anything like this again. And so that’s why we’re doing it. Sure, that’s great advice, to never do anything for free if you’re good at that thing. We are good at what we do. We’ve got a great staff of super talented people, who not only are good at their trade, but they have the heart that pulls them toward the same mission that drives our clients every day. And so this is our way of of helping support that.
Andy Johns: Well, if you’re going to keep saying good things about the staff, then don’t wait for me to cut you off. You can keep going if you like: good looking, personable, and hilarious. No, I think that’s all very well said. And it kind of leads into the next thing I was going to ask, which is about the feedback you’ve gotten. I know, I was texting back and forth with a client in Mississippi the other night about the response kit and everything. And it’s been really great to see some of those responses come in. What kind of feedback have you gotten?
Stephen Smith: You know, it’s really heart warming to me — and I get a little emotional about this — because this company, of course, my wife and I started the company 24 years ago. This company has grown up, you know, with our kids. We have a couple of kids. And this is our third one. And what we do is so near and dear to our hearts. And to see what we have done as a team to really have an impact, it’s really touching. Let me read you a couple of comments right here or more. We’ve had some nice comments like through emails, such as “WordSouth is putting out great resources. The material has been valuable. This is an excellent resource kit. Thank you.” But then we have had some like — I really love this one — “I appreciate everything the WordSouth team is doing during this difficult time. We are so blessed to work with you.” That one was special to me.
Andy Johns: Yeah, they go right back to what you said earlier about being a blessing. It’s always nice when you hear that right back to you. It means it’s working.
Stephen Smith: Exactly. This is one from someone who we’ve never done any work with. We have spoken with them a few times. And, you know, for their needs and what we offer, we’ve just never had an opportunity to work with them. But the lady emailed and said, “just wanted to take a few minutes to thank you and your staff for your generosity in creating the resources for our industry. It is appreciated and speaks volumes about the integrity of the leaders and staff at WordSouth.” And, you know, she didn’t even have to take a moment to send a comment, but she did. And it was very meaningful content. Someone said that WordSouth has shined in so many ways during this difficult time. You’re seeing a trend there; a lot of people are using that term, “difficult time.” It gives you a little insight into how they are taking it. You mentioned earlier that we are by and large a distributed workforce. We’re about 30 employees strong across five states, and we’ve worked out a lot of bugs. We’ve gotten pretty good at this remote working style of operation. But this is a new thing for a lot of people. And so as we sit here and go about our day, and realize, you know, there’s not a lot different about how I’m working today vs. how I was working sitting here a month ago. And then you step back from that when you get an email like this, and go, “you know, for some people, their whole work style, their workflow, how they’re managing their teams has been turned upside down.” And you know, that recurring word that we keep seeing, you know, “difficult, these difficult times, this difficult time,” and this is just a small thing that we can do to put out there for the greater good to help people try to navigate these difficult times.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. And however long those go, folks can continue to look at the WordSouth page. We’ll put a link to it in the show notes for this episode, but we’re going to continue adding to it. We’ve added a few things last week. We’ve got a few more coming this week. And those will just continue to come out as things go along, trying to help folks through that time. So I think we’ve about covered everything here. And we’re getting close to setting a record for the longest StoryConnect podcast that we’ve done. So I think we’ll just about wrap it up there, Stephen. And thanks for being on.
Stephen Smith: Absolutely. Thank you, Andy.
Andy Johns: He is Stephen Smith, CEO at WordSouth. I’m your host, Andy Johns. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.