The coronavirus crisis has brought back memories from the early part of my career, when I worked as a public relations staffer for hospitals in Manhattan and New Jersey. Our PR teams dealt with some significant crises — including a fire that threatened the evacuation of patients and personnel, labor unrest and human tragedies of all shapes and forms. Of course, those experiences pale in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated challenges faced by both the health care and business communities to continue to communicate with their constituencies.
Unfortunately, the crisis does not appear to be going away anytime soon. The current environment requires businesses of all shapes and sizes to evaluate their business plans, including where to go with their PR programs. By now, most businesses have dusted off their crisis communications plans, established internal and external communications processes, and implemented work-from-home plans. The lockdown has been devastating for many business owners who are struggling to survive, with at least 25% of the U.S. economy offline. How do business owners and marketing directors move forward with PR programs and weather this storm? Here are few suggestions:
- Stop the presses
Avoid news releases and product pitches to the media that are not absolutely essential at this time. Much of the world, if not all, is in panic mode right now, and any communications initiatives at the moment that do not mention COVID-19 run the risk of coming across as terribly insensitive to those who are coping with the crisis. One recent product pitch at the start of the crisis went off the rails in a big way, resulting in an article in The New York Times, but not exactly achieving what the publicist had in mind. A tone-deaf media pitch or press release can be incredibly damaging to a company’s reputation. I recommend putting off that product launch for a bit, if you can, and do not try to tag company news onto a coronavirus-related release.
- Be a community leader
If your company or organization is not already invested in your local community, now might be a good time to think about making the leap. If you are already a solid corporate citizen, you are to be congratulated, but, now, your community needs you more than ever. It is time to double down on those efforts by finding community organizations that could use your help during the crisis. By all means promote your good deeds in the press and on social media, but ask the organization benefiting from your generosity to take the lead on that promotion. Building positive relationships with the local community and your industry through financial support, volunteer work and thought leadership initiatives should be part of your PR strategy in good times and bad.
- Speaking of social media
Take advantage of the time not spent writing news releases and product pitches to invest in your online initiatives. Develop educational content for your website that you can promote on social media. Change up your profile descriptions on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., to increase visibility and get more active on social media. With so many people working at home, many are spending a lot more time on social media these days.
As we work from home, it is important to continue to be active with your network and not just with online items that obviously promote your business. Share and comment on content that is relevant to your community and industry — at the same time, you will be building up a following that may be of benefit to your business in the future. Also, consider promoting your online content with social media advertising.
- Focus on your customers
Staying relevant to your audience should be an obvious goal at all times, but it is more important than ever that you think about what your customers are going through. Put yourself in their shoes and be hyperfocused on their needs. Develop educational online content that speaks directly to their concerns.
- Be a thought leader
Many companies pursue thought leadership in a variety of ways, from the occasional blog to formal programs where employees throughout the company participate. The commitment level can vary considerably, but, if you would like to be recognized as an expert in your industry, the current crisis lends itself to taking that first step. A good beginning is selecting a topic you would like to write or speak about and pitching it to the news media.
The topic needs to be educational and relevant to the media you are pitching; do not let it come across as an advertisement. Try to identify a topic that addresses a challenge, issue or pain point that is important to your customers. Then, develop an outline for the article that you can pitch to media along with a short bio (two or three sentences) for your expert who will be writing the article. The current crisis is an opportunity to pursue this type of thought leadership initiative because, although quite impactful, the effort can be time-consuming from start to finish.
Please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 908-425-4878 if you have questions or would like more information.
Fred Feiner is president of Yankee Public Relations, a boutique communications firm in Alexandria Township. He is a seasoned public relations and marketing communications professional with over 25 years of experience helping clients achieve business development objectives.