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Utah Business

The pandemic has changed the way companies are thinking about public relations. Here are a few things to consider about your next PR campaign.

COVID-19 has changed public relations, for now

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: We are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis that is impacting every aspect of our lives and creating a new normal at home and work. How we consume news and create news has evolved a great deal over these past few weeks as well. As communicators who work with the media on a daily basis, COVID-19 has created a news event that not even the most seasoned public relations pro has ever seen. 

Every big story goes through what we call a “news cycle” or the time it takes for a story to break, reach a fever pitch, then get filed away in the back of our minds as “old news.” In our day of 24-hour cable news and a need to fill the airwaves, most news stories tend to burn out in a day; while big stories last a few days and major stories (terror attacks, natural disasters, or political scandals) typically cycle through in a couple of weeks or months. Depending on the severity of each story, the impact for brands who rely on the media varies for public relations. But we as communicators typically take the same steps: 

  1. Evaluate the news to see if/how it will impact the success of any campaign or story we want to pitch. 
  2. Adjust our strategy and narrative to make sure our story still has legs and doesn’t come across Insensitive. 
  3. Decide if we need to postpone our brand’s news until the news cycle is complete. 
  4. Look for alternative channels to share our story (i.e., company blog, newsletters, paid advertising, social media outreach, or working with social media influencers). 

Our evaluation process is based mainly on how long we predict the news cycle to take. If the industry of a brand we are working with is impacted by breaking news or a significant news story, we typically need to postpone public relations announcement for a couple of days or a week at most. The COVID-19 news cycle is different for a few key reasons: 

  1. It will be longer than any news cycle we’ve seen before. 
  2. We still don’t know where we are in the news cycle, which means we are most likely still in the very beginning stages. 
  3. It has impacted nearly every industry and every market. 

So what does this mean for you or any other brand that wants to tell their story right now? The short answer isn’t one you’re going to like. It means you may want to hold off on that next announcement you wish to make or campaign you want to launch. At least, if you are expecting the same results you would have typically received a couple of months ago. Understanding these changes doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything right now. There is a lot you should be doing. While your communications strategy needs to be reevaluated, there are a few things to consider. 

Is everyone OK?

I want to say this one is common sense, and for the most part, it is. But before you can right the ship, you first need to make sure all the holes in the hull are plugged. Not just once, but every day. Are there any practices that need to be changed to make sure your team, customers, and vendors are safe? Once they are physically safe, are steps being taken to care for their emotional and spiritual needs? My most successful clients and partners are reevaluating this and making changes daily. 

How are you communicating with your employees?

Your employees are worried right now. If they say they are fine, there’s a good chance they are lying to you. Keep in mind that you have more than a few team members whose lives have been thrown into chaos — they are suddenly working from home, and now have a house full of kids on top of several other stressors. For most companies, this is the best-case scenario. Many teams are facing furloughs or potential layoffs. Communicate with your team often, send them daily updates, call them, and use video whenever possible. They need to hear from you. 

Most importantly, they need you to be honest and open with them. If your team didn’t have trust issues before, they have them now simply because so much has changed so fast. The good news is that being honest and open doesn’t mean you have to share negative news. You can share anything from helpful homeschool tips for parents to stupid memes, to what you and other team members are doing to cope with the situation. Just don’t fail to communicate. The only thing worse than saying something stupid is saying nothing. 

What are you saying to your customers?

Your customers are in a very similar situation to your employees. Some may be rethinking their spending and deciding if public relations is an essential expense for the next few months. You need to get ahead of this, showing your value is more essential now than ever before. Let them know you care about them and that you will do whatever you can to keep their business. For instance, I was worried about paying for my gym membership after I knew that it would not be smart for me to go there. Before I could look into canceling, they sent me an email saying that they would not bill me as long as they remained closed. Simply communicating their plans saved them a lot of money from freaked out members. When it comes to what you can share with your customers, I recommend that my clients be creative; your customers need to laugh, they need to know how your business is doing and need to be reassured. We are creating some great content right now for clients who genuinely care about their customers and want to be a positive source of information right now. 

How can you still secure earned media coverage?

Securing media coverage right now is tricky for two main reasons: 

  1. Covering coronavirus has become an all-hands operation at most media outlets, which means that most reporters are busy creating breaking news and simply don’t have time to cover your news. 
  2. Individual reporters themselves have significantly been affected by the virus. 

Major media hubs are on lockdown and reporters are working from home dealing with the same stresses that you are. These developments don’t mean that some of these major media outlets won’t cover you; however, it does mean that they won’t do it fast, and when they do, there is a good chance it will be a very brief story. The silver lining here is that this allows you to focus your message where it counts — your customers. We’re still having success in the vertical trades (the publications your customers actually read in the first place). 

What does a vertical-centric strategy look like for most brands? Really, it’s about the same as your previous strategy except that instead of targeting tier-one business press who are too bogged down to cover your brand, you are targeting publications that cover the industries you sell to. The major change here will be in the narrative you generate. For instance, if you sell a SaaS product for higher education, you will focus a lot less on the specifics of your offering and more on how it is impacting users and why it is a good solution for your audience. These nuances may seem minor, but I have found they have a significant impact on how your story lands. 

How we communicate now in public relations matters a great deal. Brands must work very closely with those who are communicating on their behalf to come up with the right strategies and tactics that will be needed for the coming months. As long as we put people first, exercise patience with each other, and focus on open and transparent communications, I am very optimistic about the outcome. I think that a lot of brands will be pleasantly surprised with the result as we all get back to the basics and focus our communications internally and externally. 

Having a strong communications strategy in place is more important now than it ever has been. Making sure you are telling the right story to the right audience at the right time has never been as vital to your brand as it is now. While you are taking time to rethink your company operationally, don’t forget to put the same effort into communicating with your employees, your customers and the media with public relations.

Joshua Heath is a graduate of the University of Utah's Department of Communications, where he studied public relations and photojournalism. His photography has been featured in renowned publications such as the Deseret News magazine and The Los Angeles Times. Joshua is a skilled writer whose ghostwriting has supported organizations and businesses across the United States. Locally, he has contributed to Utah Business Magazine and Silicon Slopes Magazine.