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Communicating in the Coronavirus Age: Tips to Help

By on Wednesday, March 25, 2020

How do we communicate successfully in the Coronavirus age? We are having conversations now with clients that just a few weeks ago would have been unfathomable, due to the Coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the United States. Small businesses are coping with catastrophic financial implications and struggling to survive. Associations are suddenly reassuring their members and holding webinars to help them navigate shifting circumstances. Nonprofits are cancelling in person events, shifting programs online, finding their fundraising options drying up in many areas, and worried about extinction. People are anxious, working from home, and worried about the future, their loved ones, and their livelihoods.

Be true to your mission and values in talking with core audiences. Now more than ever, your core audiences need to hear you are staying true to your mission and values as an organization and they want to know how (and if) you are working. I’ve been checking in with current and former clients, making sure people have what they need. Because one of our core values is service. Our mission is to help nonprofits, associations and small businesses communicate more effectively. And the reality is that the Coronavirus pandemic and its far-reaching effects will impact everyone we work with and radically re-architect how the U.S. economy and society operate in the immediate future.

Be honest. It’s time to be real. Talk about how the crisis is impacting your nonprofit, association or business. If your staff are working from home, talk about how you are providing services and how the crisis impacting your operations. If you need to suspend parts of your program or operation, talk about what is on hold and why. If your business is a restaurant that is still able to offer curbside and pickup orders, talk about what you are selling and how you are supporting your employees.

Internal communications matter now more than ever. It’s also super important right now for your internal audience – your employees or volunteers – to be well-informed. Keep up those all company-wide email blasts. Make sure you know how to access your email lists. Do everything possible to streamline communication internally so employees feel in the know. For staff and volunteer communications internally, beef up conference calls and videoconferencing capabilities. Some organizations are even holding weekly coffee hours or happy hours via videoconference so staff can get some of that valuable “water cooler” time to socialize and reconnect.

Deliver bad news in a personal way. If you need to deliver difficult news – like layoffs or pay cuts – try to do it in a way that is gentle or personal – even if you can’t do it in person. That might mean spending time on the phone, or doing an all staff call, or writing a heartfelt email that explains the situation. People can understand the tough times we are all facing and the real realities that many businesses and organizations are facing. But bad news should be delivered in as gentle a way as possible, and employees should hear it from you first, not from the news media, your social media accounts, or from gossip. Your other core audiences – such as customers, donors, members, or volunteers – should also hear it from you directly if possible.

Adjust your messaging to be relevant. Evaluate social media campaigns that were scheduled and pause or shift to draft status anything that is not appropriate to run right now. Does that mean every post needs to be about the Coronavirus? No. People still need other types of information and if you have something useful to say, you can still say it. But you should evaluate what you have scheduled, and plan to adjust things so you aren’t tone deaf. You might need to plan your social media content out week-by-week, instead of scheduling large blocks of content ahead of time – the situation is shifting too much. Ad Week has commented on how this event is going to separate the bottom of the barrel marketers from the professionals, and that’s true. Continuing to operate as normal is not going to work in this environment. You should also look at mailings that are going out, publications being printed, campaigns you are planning, and even events you are now moving to online venues. Everything should be examined by using the question, “Does this still matter now at this point in time to the people we serve?” If it still matters, see if the messages or images need to be adjusted or tweaked to be more relevant.

Be clear in your communications. Realize people are managing a lot. Many are struggling with job losses. Others are working at home for the first time and managing family life too while working. Many are anxious and worried about the future. Clear communication helps – it can get through foggy minds and distractions. It may be more important to be clear, than to be fast. This is a mistake I’ve especially noticed school districts are making. In the rush to get information posted for parents and guardians, the information is sometimes not very clear and then people have to ask questions about it. Package information in small chunks, not big information dumps. Post it on a web page dedicated to the crisis and make it easy to find on your website. Some have done that by simply posting an update on their home page. Others have an entire web page dedicated to information updates.

Be repetitive. If you have something important to say, realize that people may need to hear things more than once right now. There’s a lot of information coming at people – with news updates and social media conversations on overload, people are drowning in information. If you want to talk, you need to be gentle, but you also need to be repetitive. That means you might need to share tips and information in multiple ways – post them on your blog or website, tweet them out individually, do multiple Facebook posts, send them in an e-newsletter, or post them in other locations. You need to post information where people can find it again later. The tidal wave of information and the volume of things many people are processing and managing, mean they are overwhelmed and they may simply miss it. They might need to return to your content later, so it make it easy for them to find.

Watch your tone. People around us are getting sick. Entire cities are on lockdown. Your tone should not be doom and gloom. But it shouldn’t be tone deaf either. Speak matter of factly about the situation. There is even some room for people to find some humor when appropriate. A good case in point is the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. They put their security guard in charge of their social media accounts while the staff are working from home, as he’s at the museum regularly. His fish out of water tweets are hilarious and brightening days for many.

Tailor media outreach to what’s relevant for right now. Keep press pitching right now tailored to story ideas related to the Coronavirus pandemic. Maybe it’s about the impact of the pandemic on your organization, association, or small business. A local pizza restaurant gave out food to first responders and anyone laid off recently. This was an excellent example of a small business giving back in turbulent times and helping others. A nearby business, Catoctin Creek Distillery, is giving out sanitizing alcohol and retooling to make hand sanitizer soon and has picked up press attention just from updating their Facebook page. Some organizations are still offering robust services through staff working from home and want to remind the public that they are still there and ready to help. I received an excellent e-newsletter from the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter yesterday, reminding me that they are still working to help domestic violence and sexual assault survivors from home even if they aren’t seeing people in the offices right now. I’ve seen a few small businesses remind the public that they are still open or have been deemed essential – that’s important when so much is shifting and people aren’t really sure what’s going on.

Build up your online and social media capabilities. Now is the time to extend and enhance your online and social media capabilities. Your customers, donors, volunteers, clients and supporters all need to hear from you.  Your social media accounts and website are critically important to keeping people informed. You might need to convene a team meeting on Mondays to plan out messaging and online activities for the week, or think differently about how you will do something online. Many nonprofit organizations have had to cancel fundraising events that were scheduled for the spring. Try to consider how you might do a fundraiser online instead and engage people in showing their support for your organization. For example, if you were going to hold a charity race, run or walk – try doing the event online instead. Encourage people to walk or run from home, from their yards, or in their communities if they are able to be outside safely. Use a hashtag to collect pictures and comments. Many are at home and looking for things to do to help others, so try to think of ways to help people express their support for your organization or cause while at home.

We’re posting a page of resources to help, that we will continue to update, and are also issuing some advice on self-care for public relations professionals.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your projectreview our portfoliosign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven

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