9 Tips and Considerations for Conducting PR During the COVID-19 Crisis

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Norman Birnbach, President, Birnbach Communications 

For businesses and nonprofits, as for all of us, the world shifted dramatically with the arrival of COVID-19.

It’s certainly far from business-as-usual.

Yet business continues, and organizations need to continue to operate and keep in communication with their employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

Here are some tip for how to conduct PR during this uncertain period:

  1. Understand that the media’s focus has changed. This is important, especially if you’re targeting consumer or national business media (as opposed to trade media): every reporter now also covers how COVID is impacting their regular beat. This is true for trade media, too, since they continue to cover their regular business but they are likely to ask questions about the impact of COVID.
  2. Recognize that COVID-related layoffs have shrunk a lot of newsrooms. A lot of businesses are suffering — we’re not trying to minimize that. But for PR and marketing functions that work with reporters, it’s important to realize that a lot of local and trade media have initiated significant cutbacks on staff. That means that newsrooms may not have the resources to cover your story (even if they did just a few weeks ago).
  3. Re-evaluate your communications and marketing objectives, strategies, goals, announcements and product roadmaps. Whatever you planned for 2020 may no longer be relevant, starting with launches and trade shows — especially launches at trade shows. While we don’t know yet when the general economy will reopen, you should like at key themes, plans, announcement and goals and adjust them given current conditions. It will require being more flexible and more sensitive to context than usual. 
  4. Stay relevant. Look for ways to support and contribute to your community because they need that support. For a software development client, we suggested offering tips for programmers working from home — and found some interest among trade reporters. Make sure you and your messaging stays focused on employees and customers (and not on the company itself unless its how the company is taking specific new steps to help employees and customers).
  5. Postpone unnecessary announcements. Not all announcements are equally important. Those that aren’t should be pushed back or dropped. A potential client asked us about issuing a press release to announce a new CEO for a small, international healthcare product company. We told them to hold off on that press release. While trade media continues to publish, it seems like it would be better to wait. For one thing, the news might get lost or overwhelmed amid the COVID news. Please note: some announcements are absolutely necessary; those should go forward but make sure you understand the context of when and how you issue the release. Also keep in mind: your news may not get the coverage it would have just a few months ago.
  6. Don’t try to generate coverage because you’re doing something about COVID. Every organization has had to shift its operations to adjust to the current crisis. So doing something to fight COVID isn’t enough. You need to have something special to stand apart from what everyone else is doing. There’s a lot of COVID messaging. ads, content (including this blog entry) and spam so you need to find ways to break through the clutter. Keep in mind:  Jumping on the COVID bandwagon risks making your organization look desperate. 
  7. Find a way to stand out by doing something unexpected but that fits with your brand. This won’t work for most brands, but Steak-umm’s social media experimented has paid off, according to the Wall St. Journal: “Steak-ummEmerges as Unlikely Coronavirus Misinformation Watchdog: Processed-meat maker encourages Twitter followers not to trust everything they read; ‘peak irony’ for a brand builder.” 
  8. Content remains important. Trade media remains interested in bylined articles; we’ve been in touch with a couple of editors in different sectors who have been requesting content for May, June and July. They’re thinking ahead but some of the planning is taking place now. For the short-term, you still need content for your blog and social media if only to show that your organization is active and current. 
  9. Think long-term. There’s still work to be done, even during a crisis. After the dot-com crash and in 2007-8 financial crisis, we used the down time to develop new processes and content for when we came out the other side. We’re working with clients to continue to develop relevant content (some of which will be posted after the crisis is over), and we’re doing that for ourselves, too.

We’re going through something that requires the sensitivity of the post-9/11 era and the post-financial crash of 2007-08. And it may be weeks, if not months, before we’re able to get back to some sort of normalcy. (Unfortunately, our guess is that this will happen later rather than sooner.) And we think that once we’re on the other side of the crisis, there will be significant changes to how we live, work, shop, educate, and entertain ourselves. Companies need to start thinking about what that future may look like. In the meantime, it’s an opportunity to re-evaluate what your organization does and how it approach and update that.


Norman BirnbachAbout the Author: Norman Birnbach is the president of Birnbach Communications, www.birnbach.com, a Boston-based PR and social media agency that has been helping clients navigate trends and raise awareness through earned media and thought leadership for nearly two decades. His blog, PR BackTalk, provides insights and attitude about PR, journalism and traditional and social media.

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