How to adapt your PR strategy for the COVID-19 outbreak

With the coronavirus dominating the headlines, and marketers needing to pivot in the face of cancelled live events, here’s how communicators can make a change.


Editor’s note: This article is a re-run as part of our countdown of top stories from the past year.

2020 has introduced new words and phrases into our daily conversations: coronavirus, COVID-19, social distancing, shelter-in-place.

The escalation of COVID-19 cases from a relatively small number of cases in China to a global pandemic has transformed every industry and all aspects of our lives with alarming velocity. For many businesses, there’s a pressing question:

What should you do about your marketing and public relations initiatives?

With headlines about the coronavirus dominating the news, it’s challenging to develop marketing and PR plans and execute accordingly. However, there are still things that savvy companies can do during these uncertain times.

1. Think critically about how to tell your story.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to heightened fears, and with stock markets in freefall, travel at a standstill, an overburdened healthcare system and grocery stores struggling to cope with consumers rushing to stock up on home items, there’s been plenty of news for reporters to cover.

During this time, it’s important to be judicious in how you tell your story—and evaluate whether this is the right time to be telling it at all.

Some PR pros have sent some very cringeworthy pitches to reporters (for the record, starting any email with “coronavirus is helpful” will leave many recipients shaking their heads). Before you hit “send” on any marketing emails or media pitches that reference COVID-19, think about whether you could be seen to be profiting from a catastrophe.

Err on the side of caution. If you’re not sure if you’re capitalizing on someone else’s misfortune, you probably are.

 2. Know the news cycle.

That’s not to say that all stories are invalid during this time. As daily lives are uprooted, media coverage has changed from writing about the outbreak itself to what this means for virtually every facet of life.

The news cycle tends to follow a pattern of covering the news itself (“breaking news”) on day one, with ensuing days exploring the issue and its ramifications. In the case of the coronavirus, there have been follow-on stories about the consequences of Facebook inadvertently blocking links with important coronavirus information, the rise of online shopping/delivery and the potential mental health consequences of people staying at home.

If your news doesn’t fit in the first wave of coverage, you might be able to place your solution with a follow-up piece.

 3. Understand that resources are strained.

For many publications across the globe, media resources have been overwhelmed covering COVID-19. This has meant that in some cases, reporter beats have shifted. For example, sports journalists are now being moved to general news desks to cover COVID-19 now that no major sporting events or tournaments are being held.

Think about whether your story has a trade angle to it. Industry publications are still prioritizing the pandemic angle, but are still very much covering their beats more than general news sites and dailies. For example, we worked with a client in the automotive tech space for an announcement in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that generated 15+ stories in the automotive trades.

It’s also important to remember that media relations is not synonymous with public relations. Media coverage is only one tactic from a wide array of initiatives that a seasoned PR firm can offer. With many brands becoming publishers in their own right (from consumer brands like Red Bull and Equinox to enterprise software vendors such as SAP and Adobe’s property), companies can start to amass a solid and engaged following by creating compelling content across owned and social channels.

4. Focus on the fundamentals.

If you’re pushing back on announcing or unveiling any major campaign or initiative, that doesn’t mean that you have to be entirely dormant.

In this current climate, does your messaging still stack up? If not, then a messaging revamp exercise could be in order, as well as gaining consensus from your key stakeholders that everyone is on the same page with brand positioning, and developing materials that tie back to this foundation.

Have you always had to scramble for content to post on your blog or social media channels? Now is a great time to create the content that can be pushed out at a steady cadence – whether that’s now or at a later date.

 5. Look to the long-term.

Finally, remember that companies, including brands like yours, are designed for the long-haul. Building a brand’s visibility, thought leadership, market competitiveness and reputation requires dedication and perseverance.

In the short term, many VC firms maintain that they continue to be open for business, but startup valuations may come down, fundraising could drop (both in terms of quantity and amounts raised), and burn rates will be more intently scrutinized. Undoubtedly, many businesses will be—and are already—affected.

However, history has shown that some of the most prominent brands have started and flourished during tough times, including Airbnb, Dropbox and Square. If history continues to be our guide, we’ll see more innovations emerge this year – from automation/AI, cybersecurity, digital health (including telemedicine), fintech and HR tech, among others.

Now might be as good of a time as any to build and hone your brand’s story.

Lisette Paras is the founder and president of Gravitate PR, a bicoastal PR agency. A version of this post originally appeared on the agency’s blog.


10 Responses to “How to adapt your PR strategy for the COVID-19 outbreak”

    Anthony says:

    Great article, Lisette. Thank you for pointing out the shift in reporters, journalists,
    and staff to cover more COVID-19 stories. The road ahead is uncertain but I’m confident this too shall pass in time.

    I’m experiencing a bit of COVID-19 fatigue but understand this is on everyone’s mind. My heart and prayers go out to all the families who lost loved ones.

    As you mentioned, I am hopeful that we will see innovations emerge to help us stay safer, more productive and connected in the future.

    Emmanuel Mongaya says:

    Yes, public relations has to adapt to the drastically changed situation. Aside from looking at the messaging strategy and media situation, a PR agency also needs to adapt to the logistical status. An agency will have clients coping with business losses and thus cannot pay until after an extended quarantine like here in the Philippines. How do you stretch your existing resources to deliver while struggling to survive?

    Shekhar Wagh says:

    Absolutely! We should really be careful while practising PR during this time and should avoid pitching non-COVID stories for some time. We are making sure not to share unnecessary releases and pitches to media right now. We have to wait for some time.

    Emilia Bassar says:

    Thank you for the great article. In Indonesia, it is not easy for us, PR practitioner, to deal with a pandemic situation. Hoaxes are increasing every day, not everyone can access the internet, and public awareness must continue to be increased.

    Satvik Katyayan says:

    The Coronavirus outbreak has put so many things for Businesses to consider. One of them is Communication with external aspects like Customers, Shareholders Etc. The pandemic has forced businesses to reconsider their communication methods big time. Communications to each of them, helps the business retain and grow trust among them. Most of the businesses have been forced to switch out to Remote working globally. At this point, Having powerful SaaS PR Tools like Wizikey or prysm works like a charm

    Ravinder Bharti says:

    Thanks, Lisette Paras for such a great article. Actually, during this COVID-19 time, public relations has to change drastically. We will try to cover more and more stories of COVID-19. Correspondences to every one of them enable the business to hold and develop trust among them. Stay safe

    Ravinder Bharti says:

    Thank you, Lisette Paras for a great article of this kind. In fact, during this time COVID-19, public relations has to change drastically. We will try to cover more and more stories of COVID-19. Matches to each enable the company to maintain and build confidence between them. Stay safe

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