An Approach to Public Relations During COVID-19
My high school yearbook senior quote, inspired by a friend’s sister’s poster, was “Remember yesterday, dream about tomorrow, but live today.” For decades I have regretted not trying a little harder to find a better quote. Now I’m thinking that quote very aptly describes the approach I recommend for public relations during this time of crisis.
You were planning to announce a product launch, M&A activity, new program or executive, or go deep with thought leadership.
Now might not be the best time for some of that. You don’t want to appear tone-deaf.
At the same time, think about how that news might matter to certain stakeholder groups. An incoming CEO, for example, might instill confidence — internally and externally. Same goes for the completion of a business deal. And that absolutely holds true for thought leadership, particularly as it demonstrates stewardship of your company and industry.
Some of the other activities might need to go on the back burner for now. For now. Remember that you will need to get back to them and possibly modify the original plans. Build contingency PR plans for those announcements.
In crisis communications, we’re accustomed to moving quickly, considering risk and guiding decisions that have short- and long-term implications.
On a webinar with my CPA firm this week, I was pleasantly surprised to hear them say that the first and most important thing is communications. Wow — that’s coming from the numbers people.
And it’s never been truer than during this pandemic. Working with clients of all sizes, we’re working in real-time on critical issues while cautioning clients that there’s going to be a lot more to say, very soon, and now is the time to plan those communications. “Today,” in this case, is the time we’re in, while this pandemic and the unknown persists.
An absence of communications leaves your audiences with questions, perhaps leading to incorrect conclusions. You must own your narrative, or someone else will. Some companies will thrive because they are communicating well, frequently, transparently and thoughtfully. That will set them up for future success.
As you review what needs to be communicated, be sure to consider all internal and external audiences.
As always, while messaging must be consistent, the exact content, sequencing and delivery channels will vary based on each audience.
Right now, every company should be thoughtfully communicating:
- If there has been a positive diagnosis, what steps are being taken to protect your stakeholders
- How your company is operating during this time
- How your product/service is of value to customers/clients
For example, at The Castle Group, we have launched two services directly relevant to our clients’ needs: our COVID-19 Task Force of national medical and infectious disease experts, to counsel and help inform businesses’ decisions and communications.
And with our event production partner, MK3 Creative, a virtual events service to help clients preserve direct communications opportunities, and motivate, reward and inform their audiences. This is more important than ever.
At the same time, “today,” you must be ready with a strategy and content to communicate:
- Employee positive diagnosis and related actions
- Changes to the workforce (working from home, increased staffing needs/layoffs/furloughs)
- Changes to operational procedures/structure
- Business continuity and recovery planning
Be prepared with media statements, FAQs, website copy, talking points, letters for various stakeholder groups (internal, external).
When all of this is in place, you have time to “dream about tomorrow.”
Reflect back on your original communications and public relations program. When this is behind us (and it will be), what will you need to move quickly on?
Your competitors will still be your competitors. Market share, customer and employee recruitment and retention, valuation…all the strategic objectives behind your public relations program are as important as they ever were.
Start building (“dreaming”) of your “tomorrow” plan. Strategies and tactics will both be important. When, what, how and where you communicate when the crisis is past may look different from your original plans. But you still must plan, because you need to be prepared to move quickly when the crisis ebbs and, ultimately, ends.
While I still believe I could have done a better job on my senior quote, it does have some merit today, although in a far different way than the 17-year-old me had imagined.
All three stages are equally important, and by balancing them appropriately, your public relations program will thrive under the equilibrium.
Sandy Lish is the principal and co-founder of The Castle Group, a Boston-based public relations, crisis communications and event management firm, with offices in Atlanta and Maui.