Value or Noise and Other Tips for Digital PR During The Pandemic

[Editor’s Note: In April, our monthly newsletter PRNEWS featured a series of conversations with senior PR pros to gauge their thinking about working during the pandemic. In this conversation, Julie O’Donnell, EVP/global head of digital at Evoke KYNE, discusses over-sharing digital content and the steep learning curve many organizations are climbing, among other topics. See another conversation in this series here.]

PRNEWS: What have you learned about digital communications during the pandemic so far?

Julie O’Donnell

Julie O’Donnell: Despite much talk about digital integration, many organizations–particularly in healthcare–remain overly reliant on face-to-face communication, particularly around sales reps and events.

Those who had cross-channel communications engrained in their business [previous to the virus] have found it easier to adapt. I think this will be a wake-up call for organizations to ensure they finally integrate digital across all business functions.

PRNEWS: What are you advising brands not involved with coronavirus about content and cadence?

O’Donnell: Arming yourself with data is critical. Set up monitoring dashboards and use social listening as your guide. Understand what your audience needs now, or doesn’t.

Content and cadence will be individualized, but people increasingly are looking for non-COVID content–and new solutions–as well as hope and optimism.

Content calendars are being reviewed to adapt to the changing landscape. Everything needs to be viewed through this lens: Is this message a priority or appropriate right now? If not, it comes out.

PRNEWS: What are communicators doing poorly in digital during the pandemic?

O’Donnell: First, some of them are over-sharing. Age-old communications mistakes are amplified at times like this...organizations think that just because something is important to them, that it will be important to their audience.

We’ve seen many companies broadcasting their perspective on COVID-19, and how they’re managing it, via social and email. The majority perceives this as spam, unless your company is doing something truly remarkable…or sharing updates that impact service delivery and/or customers.

Second, not delivering value. Communicators need to recognize that we’re in the midst of not only a pandemic but an infodemic, according to the WHO.

Misinformation and fake news are spreading faster than the virus. We’re encouraging companies in the life sciences and healthcare space to consider whether your content is adding value or adding to the noise. When you take that position, it’s much easier to make decisions about what to focus on, or what to shy away from.

Another problem is [communicators] trying to spend their way out of the problem. Communications has seen a shift in recent years from the idea that ‘content is king’ to a ‘money matters’ mindset, with increasing focus across all industries on paid promotion.

In this climate, companies need to revert to content fundamentals. They need to avoid being seen as opportunistic or promoting content that isn’t of public health value.

We’ve seen backlash toward organizations…even those delivering thousands of masks and other equipment…because they’ve paid to promote the tweet announcing that fact. People would rather see all resources invested in frontline health care services.

PRNEWS: What are communicators doing well with digital?

O’Donnell: They’re moving quickly. This is timeless advice for those organizations that aim to be leaders in their spaces. Leaders are staying in tune, through feedback and social listening, with their audiences. They are adapting content and channel strategy rapidly.

Collaboration is key. We’re seeing great partnerships... strengthening messaging and supporting communities.

Authenticity is essential. These are challenging and uncertain times. It’s brave to be vulnerable and empathetic. Give your company a human face…audiences consuming vast amounts of community-generated content – selfie videos on smartphones, for example – value relevance over production standards.

PRNEWS: Is anything happening that might become a permanent part of digital communications after the pandemic?

O’Donnell: Yes. Two things: remote working models and a mindset shift.

Businesses that never imagined having their entire organization operate remotely have shown that, not only is it possible, but it may be essential in our uncertain future. Communicators will need to use collaboration software and tools that allow communications to be managed end-to-end by anyone, working from anywhere.

In a regulated sector, many point to the need for cross-functional alignment and regulation as an excuse for sometimes defaulting to a ‘tick the box’ mentality, lengthy project timelines and slower adoption of new technology. The pandemic has forced people to embrace channels and tactics that were outside their comfort zones, challenging the status quo in a positive way. Teams and organizations are mobilizing quickly, collaborating virtually with aggressive timelines.

NoteA version of this content appeared in the April 2020 edition of PRNEWS. For subscription information, please visit:

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS. Follow him: @skarenstein