Best Practices for Communicating Event Cancellations

cancelled stamp on calendar

The ability to freely move about the world as we knew it has drastically changed. Now, not only large-scale consumer events like SXSW, E3 and Coachella have cancelled or postponed programming, but major league sports have delayed the remainder or start of seasons, world-renowned universities have moved classes online, and the all-encompassing NCAA March Madness basketball tournament has succumbed to the cancel culture and uncharted territory known as coronavirus. 

A PR pro becomes part of a brand’s front line when an event is cancelled or postponed. We asked industry professionals who've crafted cancellation/postponement messages about their advice for best practices. 

Lead With Empathy

Laura Goldberg, founder and principal at LBG Public Relations, worked PR during 9/11. While coronavirus is new, PR pros can approach it similarly to crisis communication strategy, placing humanity at the core, she said.

“People want to know what measures you are taking to keep them safe, as well as the people who work for you,” Goldberg said. “And, while the prospect of quarantine looms large, knowing how the brand can assist" is important—"whether it’s an airline that needs to communicate about cancellation policies or a movie studio that may be postponing the premiere of a new blockbuster, but does have a slate of films available for streaming."

Positive Messages

Communicators, she said, should "proactively open the lines of communication across a variety of channels." Messages should emphasize that "the situation will change and better times will come." 

During 9/11, the message was “the situation will get better - but right now, we're in this together,” Goldberg said. A similar tone can be applied now. 

“During 9/11 there were a great number of cancellations and launches put on hold. [We continually acknowledged]...that things (would) change, and settle down to a new normal.”

An Opportunity to Thank Fans

Lana McGilvray, founding partner of Purpose, resides and works in Austin, Texas. Recently, she led clients through the cancellation of SXSW. Acknowledging Austin's pain, her clients are leading with human interest and truth. 

Companies she counsels are using the opportunity to "thank fans and audiences, express real emotion and assure them of their continued commitment,” McGilvray said. Some are sending audiences digital or in-mail care packages and/or donating to relief funds, she added.

A Re-Scheduling Plan Helps

It’s not only attendees who need TLC when an event is cancelled. Vendors, employees and outlying partners should be contacted and informed about what's next. 

Talent often comes first, but "it is just as critical to think about reaching out to everyone from hotel and airline partners to smaller vendors," Goldberg said. “Let them know that you plan to reschedule and work with them when you do." The loss of income from a cancellation can be stressful. "An understanding that a re-engagement is on the docket is at least a little reassuring.”

No More Internal Communication 

Several PR pros mentioned that internal communication is a misnomer.  “Any [internal] messaging—whether an email or text—could end the media,” Goldberg said. “Think of [internal] messaging as potential press messaging."

A good tip, Goldberg said, is to "force yourself to take a breath" before you send internal communications and think about how a reporter might view it.

Go Digital

Going digital may be a huge opportunity for companies that don't want to fully postpone or cancel an event. In New York, a coronavirus hotbed, Jazz at Lincoln Center cancelled the next month of its season, but will take its annual gala online. It will be available via Facebook Live and other online streaming services. 

Admittedly, an in-person event has its advantages. Still, “We live at a time when TED Talks flourish online and esports rapidly are becoming a staple" for some, Goldberg said.

Switching to a streaming or virtual event can be effective, but going digital brings an entirely different set of rules. Employ pros who have assembled successful streaming events—even if they are from a sector that differs from yours—so you can tap into their insights on what works best across a variety of platforms.

While virtual events require additional expertise, "there are lots of ways to make the experience interactive and ensure that it resonates," Goldberg said.