Five Ways PR Pros Can Deal With Coronavirus Fallout

Since the coronavirus landed on U.S. shores, the media has been working overtime—not only describing the symptoms and areas affected to those seeking information, but also how the outbreak is impacting business. Whether it be the dramatic stock market drop, large-scale event postponements or travel cancellations, organizations need to assess what’s most important to communicate to a concerned public. 

Regardless of the type of brand, reacting and preparing for a coronavirus outbreak should follow the rules of a typical PR crisis, even though this seems to be a newer threat with unknown repercussions. Looking at crisis strategy can help brands get a head start on how to communicate with their audiences. 

Sara Joseph, SVP, lifestyle and hospitality lead at BerlinRosen, has worked with travel clients during outbreaks of Zika and SARS. She advises companies treat outbreaks similar to other unexpected crises. 

“Ensure that updated travel information is readily available" on websites and communicated via email, Joseph said. “It's important for people to understand, in real-time, what health organizations are advising and how this affects a company's travel policies.”

Here are five best practices for coronavirus messaging:

Let the CDC do its thing

If you are a yoga studio or doggy day care, do not pretend that you know every symptom and health factoid. The job of the CDC is to let people know symptomatic information, and how to deal with treatment. Think about your audience. If you are a yoga studio, send an email about cleanliness at the studio. And urge customers to stay home from classes if they feel sick. Stick to the basics, and let your users know you are thinking about their well being.

Over-communicate

Note the advice above, but understand people crave information. Even if it's information about receiving information. Staying radio silent fuels rumors and doubts.

Outside of communicators we are citizens, parents and employees who want to know that plans exist ahead of a pandemic. Let people know you are working on a plan—even if it is still in its infancy. People want to know that their government/management/ownership care about their safety.

Schools should consider texting students and parents with updates. Same for employers and government agencies. No one is going to get angry about the delivery of too much information during a crisis.

Easy navigation

If you are looking to distribute information, make it easy for people to find. Don't just post announcements on Twitter when not all of your audience is on the platform. A news story is great, but not everyone will see it.

The best place to post urgent policy news is on the homepage of your website, with a link to more information. In addition, you should email constituents.

Use bold colors. Make sure your announcement is at the top, or in a central location, where consumers do not have to scroll far down the page. If information is too hard to find, it won't be found. Put yourself in the shoes of a user who may not see the website every day as you do.

Embrace the consumer

Many families are deciding that a cruise ship is not the greatest place for young children to be now. Travelers are cancelling flights and trips to Italy and Asia owing to the outbreak. The cancellation of the Tokyo Marathon, World Mobile Congress and ITB Berlin surely bummed out many eager participants. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey just backed out of speaking at SXSW.

Most travelers and registrants understand the painstaking decisions that lead to cancelling a major event. What needs to be communicated is that those decisions were made in the consumers' best interests. Each of these event cities, organizations and travel companies will lose a ton of revenue, so it's not something they take lightly. On the other hand, failure to cancel may appear as if your brand has little regard for consumer safety.

To help travelers, airlines and cruise companies are introducing temporary beneficial cancellation policies. JetBlue is waving change and cancellation fees on new flights booked between Feb. 27 and March 11; cancellations will result in a credit.

Norwegian Cruise Lines is extending the time passengers can make final payments for its June and July sailings, as well as allowing them to change to another cruise time on or before June 30. Crystal Cruises is offering sick travelers the opportunity to cancel their cruise within the next 7 days in exchange for a 100 percent refund or a future credit of 125 percent.

All these steps show extra care for keeping passengers healthy, as well as working with the latest facts around the crisis.

Don't lie

This, of course, is a moral imperative and a PR mainstay. Savvy consumers can see right through any sort of forced positivity. Yes, traveling is fun, as are cruises. But if there is a risk, it is the company's responsibility to communicate that to the public. Calming messages are a nice thought, but ultimately people just want to know the facts and how they can best protect themselves.

Mainstream media journalists seek the truth at every opportunity. If something doesn't add up in your brand's crisis messaging, someone will eventually find out. Keep messaging tight, on-point, and full of the facts consumers need. That will get more respect than any smile, hug or kumbaya moment.