8 rules for better communications during COVID-19

The coronavirus outbreak has forced many organizations to change how the reach out to their publics and stakeholders. Here are some important guidelines to avoid tone deaf gaffes.

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I’ve been hearing lots of questions from clients and team members alike in the past week or so about how to go about our jobs in the face of current events.

Undeniably, it’s the smallest of concerns in light of those suffering today. Still, as many of us try to carry on, there’s a great deal of uncertainty around what is “business as usual” for PR pros today?

I’ve been around long enough to have experienced previous upheavals like Y2K, 9/11, the “Dot Com” bubble and the 2008 global financial crisis. All were trying, unsettling times. However, it’s difficult to wrap my head around the magnitude of what’s happening today, with entire industries grinding to a halt as we all do our part to stop the spread of coronavirus.

This one feels uniquely different.

We’re in unchartered territory today, and there’s no playbook for responding to the challenges facing the clients we represent—yet alone managing our own business. Here are a few observations I’ve noticed in recent days.

One caveat: Given how circumstances are changing from day to day, and even hour to hour, take these insights with a grain of salt because this is such a dynamic situation.

1. Now is not the time to sell. Not surprisingly, there seems to be a growing negative response to coronavirus-related marketing that’s too tangential or loosely-tied to the global pandemic. Basically, don’t look like you’re trying to “sell” using the disease as a hook (see this recent Muck Rack blog post for examples of what not to do).

2. If you have something meaningful or helpful to say, speak up. Based on limited experience in recent days, stories that are legitimately insightful are okay if you are judicious in how you frame the narrative and approach the media. If you have a service or product offering that can genuinely help people in this time of need (such as Comcast offering free internet access to low-income residents or educational software companies providing free online learning tools for students), focus on informing—not promoting.

3. Reporter queries are fair game. Reporter queries, such as HARO Source Requests, ProfNet for Experts and Qwoted, are more valuable than ever because you know those reporters are covering the topic of their request. In addition, email pitch platforms, like OnePitch, which matches your story pitch to journalists’ preferences, are less intrusive and more targeted.

A quick scan of HARO email queries this week reveals plenty of non-coronavirus requests for expert sources. Putting more effort in this direction right now is a good bet. But a word of caution: I responded to one last week and the writer (an contributor) indicated that he received more than 300 responses.

4. Reconsider stories for business & consumer press. What to do if your client/company has an upcoming product launch or funding news to announce? Any stories for the general business and consumer media that are not coronavirus-related will face a strong headwind for the next few weeks (at a minimum).

If you have a story for a consumer or business press audience that can be pushed out, I’d do so. Concerned that your funding news will slip out in an SEC Edgar filing? Maybe you should try waiting it out. At this point, it’s probably smarter to answer incoming questions (there’s always more to the story than what’s in the filing anyhow) than to try and share your news proactively.

5. Consider vertical trade media. Though the tide appears to be turning, we have found that the vertical trade media are still covering more traditional news and insights. As such, we’ve turned our attention to pitching contributed articles and case studies and dedicating more time to awards submissions. As recently as Friday, we had a contributed article accepted by a leading trade publication for one of our clients.

6. Pitch cautiously—and be upfront. As the crisis unfolds, many reporters are being reassigned from their regular beats. To the previous point on pitching contributed articles to trade media, take extra care to make sure the reporters and editors you are targeting are still writing about other topics. You’d do this anyway but dedicate even more time to scanning recent coverage and Twitter feeds to see what they’re saying—if anything—about coronavirus.

PR is a fast-paced business, but pros must be more measured, sensitive and mindful than ever while doing what they do.

7. Explore educational and thought leadership content. Companies are seeing a surge in time spent on websites and increases in downloadable material. The thinking here is that as more people work from home and try to feel productive, they’re turning to educational materials to fill the gap. (“I might as well research this thing I need to know while I have time…”) This could be a great way to reach captive audiences.

8. Think twice, even three times before hitting send. If you’re not sure whether a message or pitch is in good taste, relevant or timely, don’t send it. Everyone, media included, is especially sensitive right now. You can do lasting damage to relationships or your brand with something that come across as tone deaf or shamelessly opportunistic.

What are some of your observations or guidelines for communicators during this crisis? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Steve Smith is a program director with Voxus PR. A version of this article originally ran on the Voxus PR blog.

 

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