COMMUNICATIONS IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

Is It the Right Time to Say This? Too Soon to Pitch That?

 

Dos & Don’ts During This Period of Tumult and Uncertainty.

 

Just a few weeks ago, the world looked and felt much different. In the US, a relentless bull market ran to new all-time highs, companies furthered their streaks of reported record earnings, consumer confidence was through the roof and unemployment was at historic lows. For our part, we were actively working with clients to implement ambitious integrated communications programs with PR and media efforts in full swing.

Then, seemingly overnight, everything drastically changed.

In our line of work, we are continually advising clients on the merits of crisis communications preparedness and guiding them through some of their most challenging issues and high-stakes decisions. So, while there is no simple tactical PR playbook for navigating these COVID-19 waters, our approach to engaging with clients remains unchanged. Each client situation is unique, but our advice is clear about communicating with their key stakeholders whether it’s through earned, owned, shared or paid media:

Be responsive. Be clear. Be informative. Be transparent.

Effective communications is not about spin or embellishment, especially in times of crisis. At its core, communications is about engaging in dialogue, building credibility, dispensing information and advancing a fact-based narrative. Jargon and hyperbole have no place in effective communications, especially in times of crisis. It’s trite, but that’s because it works: Keep it simple.

Be clear with your message. And, know your audiences. Not everyone who engages with your brand on a specific channel is there for the same reason nor do they necessarily need the same level of detail, even if the spirit of the message is similar.

Therefore, you must consider myriad internal and external stakeholders—ranging from investors, customers and media to analysts, employees and public officials—and you must also consider what you want them to do with your information and how you want them to react. Is there a call to action? Are you positioning an expert who can share actionable and potentially lifesaving insights?

So, what’s appropriate during these uncertain times? As we enter week 4 of coronavirus in the US, what should you be saying to your audiences, when and through which channels? The answer – it depends.

Clearly, if you are a healthcare or pharmaceutical company on the front lines battling COVID-19, the content, tone and cadence of your communications as well as the breadth of your audience is bound to differ greatly from other ‘front-liners,’ such as a regional restaurant chain trying to keep its staff, customers and communities apprised of store closings or the measures it is taking to keep workers safe and its restaurants clean.

Still there are other companies—perhaps not on the front lines—that may be indirectly impacted by the coronavirus, perhaps largely due to the steep stock market selloff and related economic uncertainty. Those companies’ communications are still of great importance to its employees, customers and other key stakeholders and are perhaps vital to its business continuity and broader industry.

Despite the fact that there isn’t one set of communications rules that every company should be following at this time, as a rule of thumb why not subscribe to the idea of essential vs. non-essential (communications), given that terminology has become quite familiar to all of us?  Companies should predominantly be sharing what’s important and germane relative to the coronavirus and/or mission critical to operating businesses.

We have not reached the time, yet, when superfluous messages or press releases that seem ancillary, at best, are warranted or even appropriate. To put a finer point on the types of communications you might be unsure about: capital raises, yes; new product or milestone announcements, no (unless peripherally connected to coronavirus).  You get the gist.

Your audiences matter. Your words matter. Choose Wisely.

We recognize that people love lists, especially communications folks. So, while it’s impossible to provide counsel for every company’s communications strategy in this one blog we thought it might be helpful to provide a quick list of the types of communications and approaches that you may consider for your company to engage with audiences at this point in time.

Do:

  • Earned: Provide updates to media when there is new information to share; there is not a need to overcommunicate. We aren’t there quite yet, but commentary/stories that begin reflecting on lessons already learned throughout the crisis that are constructive could be of near-future interest to reporters. What’s next? How do we avoid the impact that your business or industry is bound to endure?
  • Owned: Begin to humanize your message and your brand through your people. For example, if you already manage a corporate blog, you should consider peppering in a content series that perhaps identifies small but important acts of leadership in your organization that came into view during the crisis.
  • Shared: Other brands, other outlets and other influencers will share content that is of interest and useful for your brand and audiences. Share this content on your channels.
  • Paid: When you have a piece of content that necessitates as many views as possible, consider paid search and paid social media. Digital readership has never been higher, and paid digital channels will help disseminate crucial messaging to the largest percentage of your target audience. Sophisticated targeting also allows you to yield a strong return-on-investment from money spent and resulting views.

Don’t:

  • Earned: Just the facts. Reporters, more than ever, don’t want to receive pitches or press releases that are overly promotional or self-serving. Yes, they are still interested in news other than coronavirus, but take the time to really understand what that reporter has been covering and make sure your pitch is customized and relevant to their audience. If a press release doesn’t need to be disseminated this week, hold off.
  • Owned: Don’t push marketing material. Period.
  • Shared: Don’t just share anything. Completely read everything you plan to share. If the content comes from a social media channel, look back at that user’s post history for potentially damaging content or points of view. Don’t share rumors. Don’t share any type of negative messaging.
  • Paid: Don’t use paid to push content around Coronavirus or COVID-19. That should be left to official healthcare and governmental sources. Many social media channels have banned such advertising.

Remember, there is no playbook for navigating this pandemic. We are in many ways testing the waters and learning on the go.  Fortunately, feedback mechanisms are many and society should be at its forgiving best in the event of an overreach.  Still, you’ll do well by holding to a focus on being responsive, clear, informative and transparent in all of your communications across all of your channels.

Your audiences matter. Your words matter. Choose Wisely.

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