By Catie Corcoran
A pandemic will certainly change the world around you, as we’ve all seen in recent weeks. Rolling news reports show hospitals filling with patients, while stores, restaurants and schools close their doors and we learn to navigate the new ‘normal’. Businesses, large and small, are making difficult decisions daily – a record 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last month – meaning sensitive and empathetic communications are critical.
Communication as we know it has also seen a huge shift. Face-to-face meetings have been replaced by video conferencing, elbow bumps look set to replace the traditional handshake, and similarly companies’ communications strategies must adapt and evolve to ensure they take an appropriate tone during a time of crisis.
Being smart about communications during a pandemic can be simple. Here’s our checklist for a sensible and honest approach to media relations and talking to your various audiences:
Check your schedule
Scheduling social media posts ahead of time is a great way for businesses to stay organized, but forgetting to edit something as innocent as a light hearted post could result in backlash you would rather avoid. Take a look at your scheduling platform and refine, or even delete, future posts that sound frivolous or inappropriate, given the current climate. Household-name brands have halted entire campaigns that focus on practices that would be perceived risky, or even unhygienic in this age of social distancing. KFC’s UK arm pulled a ‘finger lickin’ good’ campaign that saw diners enthusiastically licking their fingers after eating chicken, and a Hershey’s campaign showing an influencer sharing chocolate, handshakes and hugs was also shelved. The big spends outlaid for these advertisements were clearly considered less important than hitting the right note in a changed climate. Sometimes less is more, and when things return to normal, you’ll be able to make use of those saved posts.
Is it a natural fit?
All publicity is not good publicity. Avoid the temptation to insert your brand into coverage of the coronavirus crisis unless there is an honest and natural fit. For example, maybe you operate a research organization working on a COVID-19 test, or your organization is doing something meaningful to help healthcare workers, or workers in the hard-hit retail and hospitality sectors. If so, get to pitching! We could all use a feel-good story in times like these! However, if you’re capitalizing on a situation that economists say could lead to an unemployment rate of 18 per cent, you may want to look closely at your motives. It might seem harmless, but is the publicity worth jeopardizing partnerships with not only your customers but the journalists you speak to on a regular basis? Pitching something that might be viewed in poor taste can change the way a reporter sees you, and by extension, your company values. Be willing to take a step back on media pitching, instead focusing your efforts elsewhere until the time is right.
Press pause on big news
Journalists who don’t report on health or hard news have been coming out of the woodwork this week asking PRs and companies to continue pitching non-coronavirus related stories. Those working for magazines with long lead times are planning issues that won’t hit newsstands for up to six months from now, and niche and trade publications still need to fill their pages. Use your intuition though. If you’ve been planning a product launch or sharing important company news, now is not the time. Your message will quickly get lost in the noise – whether shuffled to the bottom of a busy reporter’s pile or simply not given the coverage it would enjoy in simpler times.
There are also sensitivities to consider when responding proactively to a changed media landscape. e-commerce retailer, ASOS, showed last month that just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. The company was mocked online for releasing gold and silver chainmail facemasks in response to coronavirus social distancing. Consumers have a long memory when it comes to marketing missteps or perceived insensitivity.
The coronavirus pandemic has created uncertainty in just about every area of our lives. Churches and schools are closed, planes are grounded, events have been cancelled, and we are spending time perfecting our handwashing techniques and searching for grocery essentials. Avoid adding to this uncertainty by being as transparent as possible with your internal stakeholders. Maintain the confidence and backing of your Board by keeping members updated on your business strategy for the coming months. Employees – perhaps your most important internal stakeholders – must also be considered. Highlight the positives but be upfront about any difficulties your business is facing, including the possibility that there may be layoffs. We are dealing with an unprecedented situation and honesty is the best approach when dealing with people’s lives.
Honesty is still the best policy
PR and communications don’t always have to be about the smartest tagline, the most expensive photography or the biggest splash in the news. When all else fails, honesty and empathy will always resonate with your customers.