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COVID-19: Communications in a Changing World

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, how should companies be communicating with their audiences?

Over the past several weeks, we’ve watched as the world has changed in unimaginable ways. Rolling news reports show images of hospitals overflowing with patients, announcements of business closures, and extreme stock market volatility. We’re all left learning to navigate this ‘new normal’, and as a result, businesses large and small are making difficult decisions daily (a record 3.3 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last week). Sensitive and empathetic communications are more critical than ever.

On top of everything else, communication as we know it has also seen a notable shift. Face-to-face meetings have been replaced by video conferencing, elbow bumps and foot taps have replaced the traditional handshake, and companies are rapidly needing to adjust their communications strategies to ensure they take an appropriate tone during this time of crisis.

Despite all the changes and uncertainty swirling around us, being smart about communications during a crisis situation doesn’t need to be complicated. Here are six simple tips for staying on the right side of history during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Check your schedule

We all schedule social media posts ahead of time, but forgetting to edit something as innocent as a lighthearted post could result in backlash you’d rather avoid. Take a look at any pre-scheduled posts in your queue, and refine (or even delete) any that suddenly 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 campaigns were clearly considered less important than hitting the right note in a new environment.

Sometimes less is more, and when things return to normal, you’ll be able to make use of any saved posts that aren’t appropriate for this time.

Avoid the shoehorn

All publicity is not good publicity. Avoid the temptation to insert your brand into coverage of the COVID-19 crisis. If there is an honest and natural fit – for example, you operate a research organization working on a new test, or your company is doing something notable to help healthcare workers – then by all means, get to pitching. Genuine and relevant expert sources are always needed for news stories.

However, if you’re merely trying to capitalize on a public health crisis that economists say could lead to a massive spike in unemployment, you may want to reassess. Your efforts might not be mal intended, but is the potential for publicity worth jeopardizing partnerships with customers or journalists? Pitching something that might be viewed in poor taste can change the way a reporter sees you, and your company values.

Be willing to take a step back on media pitching, and focus your efforts elsewhere until the time is right.

Press pause on product launches

Some of the 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 to release some 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 week that just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. The company was roundly 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.

Take a step back

We aren’t often given the gift of time, so embrace these weeks and months as an opportunity to take a step back and work on the behind-the-scenes pieces that can often get rushed with the busyness of business. Use this time to develop your post-pandemic communications strategy, update marketing or product materials, and take care of the projects that always seem to get bumped for more important tasks. Take a look at our suggestions for DIY public relations and get some of these simple, smart ideas underway while you have time!

Internal communications

The coronavirus pandemic has created uncertainty in just about every area of our lives, from schools being closed, to how we should wash our hands, and where we can find 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. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! They may be able to offer insights or advice you hadn’t previously thought of.

Employees - perhaps your most important internal stakeholders - must also be considered. Striking a balance between positivity and the reality of your current situation may not be easy, but it’s the best option. Be upfront about any difficulties the business is facing, including the possibility that there may be layoffs, while focusing on the positives. We are dealing with an unprecedented situation, open, fair, and honest communication is always the best approach.

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 audience.

And, above all, stay safe and healthy.


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