Late last month, PRNEWS and partner Yonder gathered a panel of senior communicators for a webinar: “Communicating About COVID-19 — Navigating a New and Uncertain Crisis.”
During the session, attendees generated more questions than we could handle. We assembled another group of PR pros to tackle questions left unanswered.
That group included: Adam Snyder, founder, ALS Impact, a strategic communications consulting firm, Deb Hileman, CEO, Institute for Crisis Management and LT Taylor, communications director at Burrow, the online furniture brand. Their edited responses to questions are below.
PRNEWS: In this environment, how often should communicators be pushing out information? We want to be informative but not overwhelming
Adam Snyder: Be selective and don’t overdo it. Focus on essentials and leave anything extra off to the side.
PRNEWS: How do we ensure our messages do not come off as insensitive?
Snyder: Be mindful, but don’t try to capitalize on the crisis…A large company shouldn’t make a big donation [merely to] boast about it…Give back and be humble. The news of what you’ve done will come out, so lean into being part of the solution.
LT Taylor: Iterate on each message. For instance, say you decide to proceed with a long-planned product launch. Make sure to give your audience the context and be sensitive about the positioning.
For example, “We know things are weird, but this is something we’ve been working on for a while. We’re proud of it and want to continue celebrating the small wins.” This approach has three components: it shows you’re not insensitive and have been keeping an eye on the news cycle, it adopts best-in-class examples from other brands and shows you’re thinking about how to authentically communicate with your customers.
PRNEWS: What are some keys for an effective media relations strategy during this crisis?
Snyder: Be as transparent as possible. Don’t pretend it’s business as usual. Pitch stories that inform your customers how the virus will, or may, impact them and what steps you’re taking to ensure the continuation of your business.
Don’t try to be an authority on coronavirus, unless you are one. I’ve received detailed updates about health-related virus issues from so many companies that have no business telling me anything about health….there are world-class health organizations to do that.
Taylor: Tread lightly and reset your goals and expectations since so many outlets and reporters have shifted their priorities. It’s still important, maybe more so, to understand why you’re telling a story…and who might be interested in it. As always, spend time reading each content creator’s previous articles, see what they’re sharing on Twitter, and approach each pitch with empathy.
Deb Hileman: In the midst of the overwhelming amount of difficult news coverage about the virus, some reporters are seeking pitches about feel-good stories that can uplift audiences. The caveat is that many of them will want virus-related, feel-good material. Stories about actions your organization is taking to help customers, employees or the community will add to its goodwill bank of trust and reputation.
PRNEWS: What advice do you have for communicating with remote employees to keep them engaged and energized?
Snyder: Again, transparency is key. Create a feeling of we’re all in this together…Your business strategy should be about survival. Find a way to enlist employees in the cause, and regularly report back to them about how the business is doing. Call out employees who have gone above and beyond. Last, working remotely doesn’t mean teams are separated. Find ways to regularly connect face-to-face over video conferencing apps for everything from meetings to happy hours.
Taylor: Make a point to start each call with lighthearted small talk. Encourage managers to ask team members how they’e doing during one-on-one meetings. Friends, family members and industry folks are experiencing the pandemic in different ways. You’ll find that having those human conversations helps.
PRNEWS: How and when do you start to begin publishing business-as-usual messages?
Snyder: On day one. How your employees work and how your customers interact with you may have changed, [but] what you offer, the trust you’ve built, the work you do and what your customers get, should not.
Hileman: It is important to be thinking about business as usual communications now, but do so in a framework of the new normal. Timing for ramping up communications will vary depending on geography, but strategic discussions should explore what the future may look like.
PRNEWS: How should we develop communications plans for the rest of Q1 and plan for Q2?
Snyder: Be very flexible in everything you do. And plan in 2-week increments. We don’t know how long the self-isolation and social distancing will last, what the economic impact is or how many jobs will be lost. If a company is signing a big partnership, it should be focused on making an impact during the current new normal.
PRNEWS: When should planning start for the post-crisis environment?
Snyder: Every company should have a crisis- and disaster-recovery plan in place. Once there is some inkling of an upswing, it’s time to dust off the recovery plan. Make it relevant for today and begin to slowly get back to normal…create content that shows and celebrates teams are back at work. Do the same around serving customers, working with vendors and performing community outreach events.
PRNEWS: How would you make the case to the C-suite about the importance of having communicators in the room when decisions about coronavirus strategies are made?
Hileman: Get your communications leaders in the room now, if they are not already there. If you don’t have senior communicators on staff, engage with outside PR/crisis communications counsel to provide solid advice and support. As we’ve seen through countless communications missteps going viral, carefully crafted messages are more important than ever.
Snyder: Good leaders know they can’t do everything and instead surround themselves with people who can. Communications professionals are in the business of perception and reputation. CEOs should consult their comms lead on everything that will be known externally...Spar over ideas to present an image of stability, consider stakeholder relationships and the community, and work together so any external communication is created in a genuine, honest way.
Notes: A version of this story appeared in the April 2020 edition of PRNEWS. For subscription information, please visit: http://www.prnewsonline.com/about/info You can read about other questions from the webinar here and listen to a free replay here