Pandemic Style PR is Here to Stay
We are now months into the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and if you are like us, you have been juggling a lot. Overnight, some of our clients went into crisis mode. One had to lay off people right away and needed help in crafting the messaging. Another put a project on hold. One cancelled a major fundraising event and a slew of other activities. Some clients struggled to get their staffs online and working productively while managing new projects and crises that were being thrown at them from all sides. We dove in to help wherever we could.
And there were also glimmers of success and a new normalcy too. One client found its messaging even more relevant in the pandemic age, so its work accelerated – with retooled messaging, more media outreach, and new infographics. Another nonprofit client still found a way to hold its much anticipated May event, albeit in an altered and socially distanced form. Yet another nonprofit client radically adapted its operations to the pandemic (they work with people experiencing homelessness so you can image how tough running shelters and job retraining programs is for them in this climate!) and found that some of the people who rejected help in the past, were now more open to receiving help, because of the pandemic.
Somehow, I even managed to wrack my brain and write two magazine columns on public relations during the pandemic to help faith-based nonprofits navigate these murky waters – all while working full-time from our home office, supervising schooling for a little human, and trying to dream up creative family dinner menus (update: Rick says our menu has been a little too weird lately. Send pizza gift cards if you want to help him out!).
It’s been an interesting ride so far and here’s my take on it. Pandemic style public relations (PR) is here to stay. The reality is that even with states opening up quickly, many things in our lives will be very different, for a very long time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while I might wake up still occasionally hoping I’ve been in an episode of Groundhog Day set to loop and this is all a dream, the reality is that the effects of this pandemic will be with us for a long time. Here’s how I think the communications landscape will re-shape and what doing pandemic style PR will mean:
Long-term planning is out. Because the pandemic has injected a current of uncertainty into our world, long-term and multi-year planning in detail is simply not possible. Public relations plans can have modest short-term goals, but longer-term planning remains challenging in an environment where crisis can still rule the day.
Public safety and health are key messages for everyone. We are all health communicators now. Plans need to be in place to ensure that if facilities, offices, stores, or programs are open, people are safe. Be able to explain how you are keeping employees, customers, clients, and others safe. Be able to talk in detail about required policies for safety and the steps being taken for safety. Ensure that all of the staff can voice what the policies are and how they will work, and are empowered to implement them. Be prepared with signage, web announcements, and social media to talk about how people are being kept safe.
Crisis planning is in. There is still a hefty need for well-developed crisis plans for contingencies for all sorts of organizations. As businesses and offices reopen, employers need plans for how to open safely and also how to respond if operations are restricted or shut down again by local governments. Communication trees should be active and in place now thanks to remote work, and decision-making should remain streamlined and nimble to adjust as circumstances change.
Remote work is here to stay for white collar employees. Tech companies like Twitter and Microsoft are not the only ones embracing working from home for the long term. Many employers are viewing remote work as a way to keep employees safe and they’ve been surprised to find out how productive employees can be while working from home. Employees are also finding in some cases, that working from home helps them manage family life and work responsibilities. The offices of the future will have fewer communal workspaces, lots of sanitizing, and more separation between employees. There’s also going to be more talk about how to help employees find remote work energizing, and connecting.
Be willing to do what you’ve never considered before. This is the time for true “out of the box” thinking. Not the kind that we talked about for years at really boring and overpriced seminars with lots of jargon-dropping – but real honest-to-goodness creativity that bucks the old way of doing things. Instead of cancelling their conference and dramatically dropping the registration fee for a watered down virtual event (which many were doing), one trade association made their conference even LARGER online than it would have been in real-life and charged the full registration fee. They also recorded all the workshops and set things up so you could take literally every workshop if you wanted to, for the next year, if you signed up to attend. They were wildly successful. Because they did something they’d never done before and thought of a way to do it.
Messaging should be reviewed regularly and come from a place of integrity. We all need to ask hard questions about relevance and importance when planning messaging for brands and companies in this new environment. Irrelevant messaging is still out in a COVID-19 world, but your organization or company’s fans do still want to hear from you. Due to the Black Lives Matter movement, brands and companies are now rethinking how they’ve approached diversity and equity, and some of them are reckoning with shortcomings, privilege and outright racism. These conversations were long overdue, and it’s important now for brands to get their messaging right and for them to speak from a place of integrity and even vulnerability.
Find ways for people to feel connected, without being together. One of the biggest challenges nonprofit organizations, employers, educational institutions, and many others are facing in all of this- is how to help people feel together, while they are still socially distanced apart. The pandemic has decimated much of community life, but there’s been lots of great examples of communities coming together online and through social media during the pandemic – from school spirit rallies with photos on social media, to golf cart parades and zoom happy hours. People still need to feel connection and crave it.
Admit mistakes and move forward. Because the pandemic has hurled a lot of chaos across industries and companies, many are making decisions with lots of unknowns. Communications is simply not going to flow at times, as smoothly as communicators would prefer. If you make a mis-step, admit the mistake, apologize if needed, clear up the mis-understanding and move forward. Keep going.
The news media will continue to operate pandemic-style. That means many reporters are still working from home. The ones who are going out – are typically television reporters and photographers covering major events and protests. Prep your spokespeople for Skype and Zoom interviews because in person interviewing is simply not a given anymore. Giving journalists advanced notice, pitching relevant stories to the right reporters, and providing lots of resources will all still be key.
Do your homework, before you pitch a story to a reporter. The news media cycle remains relentless and 24/7 and it’s been operating on hyperdrive since March. The fall election cycle will make the intensity even worse. Doing your homework is a lot more than looking up reporters by topics in a media database – it means looking at what they are covering and doing now, today. Many have been reassigned or seen their beats change due to the pandemic. It’s more important than ever that what you have to say be relevant to the issues at hand. Reporters didn’t have time for off target pitches before the pandemic, and they really don’t now. They need stories that are relevant to how people are living today.
Non-pandemic stories can still break through. The Black Lives Matter protests calling for justice and stimulating much-needed and long overdue conversations in our communities, are a testament to how a story can break into a news cycle, even in a pandemic. Fueled by viral video, righteous revulsion for inequities, and a cry for justice, this movement opened our eyes to horrific injustices and biases – and I think it will keep pressing forward and transform our society in ways we didn’t expect. Brands talking about equity and eradicating racism should put their actions behind their words.
Keeping employees informed and empowering them to make decisions will be important. Employee communication has never been more important than right now. Front line employees who interact with the public should be able to explain how safety is managed to customers. They should also be empowered to resolve small complaints or inconveniences for customers on their own – so no one is standing for a long time at a cash register trying to get a problem resolved through an elongated chain of command. Even with white collar employees working from home in many cases, the rumor mill can still operate full steam – keeping employees informed and connected is more important than ever to avoid problems.
The reality is that pandemic style PR is here to stay – and successful professionals will be retooling their work, constantly on their toes, and working in the best interests of their clients and the public.
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 project, review our portfolio, sign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven