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Don’t Hard Sell, Build Goodwill: GitLab Comms Leader on Comms Strategy During COVID Dana Oshiro

At a time when the world is struggling to come to terms with the effects of COVID-19, there just isn’t a lot of patience for traditional mass marketing. The truth is, some startups have really failed to read the zeitgeist. From weird email nurturing campaigns, to poorly-timed pitches, to banner ads that just haven’t been adapted to today’s reality, teams need to take pause and reassess their messaging and approach. One team that has managed to gain recent media attention, while also retaining their values and poise, is GitLab. Heavybit caught up with GitLab’s Director of Corporate Communications Natasha Woods to find out how she’s approached comms strategy during COVID: 

GitLab has always had a remote culture and handbook, but the last 2 months have definitely moved beyond remote work as we know it. What changed internally for you and your team? What were some of the first things you chose to communicate internally? 

Our entire game plan for Corporate Communications had to change really. The majority of our March and April media and social campaigns were focused around events – GitLab Contribute, KubeCon EU, SXSW, SaaStr – and with those events cancelled, we had to shift our strategy. 

Simultaneously, we needed to help support internal communications for the cancellation of our all company event GitLab Contribute, 3rd party event cancellations and general company travel guidelines.

And the third thing that occurred was a flood of incoming remote work inquiries from the media that we leaned into with the goal of being as helpful to their readers as possible – many of which were tackling working remotely for the first time. 

Needless to say it has been a busy couple of months.  

Has the frequency of internal comms efforts changed? 

As an all remote company, transparent communication is a key element. In fact, we have a 5,000 page public handbook that we use to document updates. We also use a company announcement channel on Slack and both internal/external AMAs. Given these regular vehicles for communication, I would not say the frequency changed, but the type of communication updates changed to focus on guidelines and resources for events, travel, benefits, medical leave, and taking time for family. 

Reenforcing the message from the top down that employees are encouraged to adjust schedules and put their health and their families first has definitely increased. We are constantly reminded of this and many employees have adjusted their schedules.

What messages were the top priority for you to communicate, and to whom? 

Internally, the top priority communication was to put health and families first. Followed by how to cancel travel to GitLab Contribute and 3rd party events, general company travel guidelines, benefits, and medical leave. Several of us worked on these communication efforts.

Externally, the top-priority communication was to customer questions regarding if our supply chain was impacted by the pandemic and providing the world remote work resources in the form of blogs, handbook pages, an ebook, webinars, media interviews, etc. 

Did your external messaging or any of your campaigns change? How? 

Our external message has always been a great mix: helpful resource, encouraging contribution and collaboration, and highlighting all of our platform’s features. During this time, we have shifted more towards empathy and being a helpful resource. 

In terms of campaigns, we either postponed or shifted. A few examples: 

KubeCon EU is a very big show for GitLab and we not only had a Platinum booth at the event, but over a dozen media interviews scheduled, speaking sessions at the event, and an entire social media adventure planned. We had to postpone all of this activity until August when the show will be rescheduled. But all was not lost, GitLab’s Director of Technical Evangelism and CNCF Board Member connected with several members of the Kubernetes community and they hosted a virtual Cloud Native event in April with over 1,200 people registering to attend. The goal of this was to provide the community with the project updates and technical how to tracks they would have gotten at the conference. The goal was to be a helpful resource and encourage contribution and collaboration. 

In mid-March, our CEO was scheduled to speak at both SXSW and SaaStr regarding the Future of Remote Work. We had a campaign involving a remote work report, media engagement, social media channel launch and a meetup scheduled. Ironically, the topic for this campaign was remote work, so we were fortunate in our ability to easily shift our efforts from these cancelled events to providing remote work resources to the world in the form of blogs, handbook pages, an ebook, webinars, media interviews, social engagement, etc. Again, the goal was to be a helpful resource. 

Our global channel program announcement was slated for the first week of April and we made the decision to shift the timing of the media announcement by three weeks to allow more time to pass from the initial mass media coverage of shelter in place enactments and give additional time to coordinate the announcement with our partners globally.

What new and common inbound requests are you seeing from customers and external stakeholders? How are you handling them? 

We have seen incoming requests from customers, external stakeholders and media asking if the company’s supply chain is affected by the pandemic, if we have seen an upsurge in use/enrollment of our platform and what the impact of COVID-19 has had on our market/customers. 

To all of these, we have been honest and transparent while approaching the responses with humility. We have provided details on what we know, mentioned what we do not know yet and how we are planning for the unknown.

You’ve worked in agencies, startups, and for the Linux Foundation prior to your time at GitLab. Over that period you’ve had to communicate during tough times. How did those experiences inform your decisions today? 

The phrase “This too shall pass” resonates more and more with me as the years pass. Working through a global pandemic is definitely a first, but the same principles I take away from that phrase still apply – remain calm, we will get through this together, this is simply a moment in time, do the best you can with what you have, and remember to breathe.

I try to trust my gut, I bounce ideas off of others, I go in with the mindset of iteration and most importantly I try to be empathetic with my audience the communication is intended for. How will they perceive this message? What is the importance to them? How will this impact them? Oftentimes the choice in words and tone used can have the biggest impact.

What advice do you have for early-stage startup marketers and community teams at this time? 

How companies communicate at this point in time is being magnified 10x and one misstep by the company can be negatively blown out of proportion. How you communicate individually and as a company is important to your recovery and economic recovery. Early-stage startup marketers and community teams should think about the following: 

  • It is not a time to sell yourself, it is a time to be a resource. A self-congratulation is the worst sales pitch right now. Being a resource is the best pitch.
  • Get creative. The old marketing ways may not be an option right now. Look into virtual events, public AMAs, how to tutorials – find ways to be helpful and engaging vs traditional sales pitches.
  • Think about your audience. How will they perceive your communication? – and be empathetic in your communication
  • All conversations, sales, comms, marketing should begin and end with a personal touch (i.e. are you OK?) – this is critical to how other customers and “outsiders” will look at how you made it through.
  • Stop waiting for something to be final and perfect – be open to iteration.
  • Prepare for the second wave when cities start to open up and people start to go back to work. This is not a time to go back to traditional communications. This time period will also need a level of sensitivity and understanding in communication.
  • And most importantly, put your health and your families first. You cannot deliver your best work if these two things do not come first. Same goes for your teams.

Learn more about how GitLab manages their remote team with these tips from our session with Darren Murph. Learn how the Heavybit community is responding to COVID-19 in this roundup

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