How Covid-19 is Shifting PR Strategies

Mar 17, 2020 Beth Monaghan

PR in the midst of COVID-19 is not business as usual. Over the past week at InkHouse we’ve been fielding questions about what media outreach is appropriate, what companies should post on social media, how many more corporate COVID-19 emails can everyone withstand, and when will things go back to normal? Some things will, and some things will adjust. We are embarking on a virtual economy.

Before I get into InkHouse’s guidance for the present moment, I want to express my gratitude to the reporters we work with every day who are bringing facts and insight to a public grappling with who to trust. We need the free press, now more than ever. Many news outlets have made their COVID-19 stories available free-of-charge, which is a massive public service. A good way to thank them is to subscribe because while we may have a free press, the news is not created for free. So let’s begin with the press.

Engage the Media Selectively. Should you stop media relations? No. While the mainstream press are pre-occupied with stories about COVID-19 and its impact on our way of life, healthcare system, economy, and the upcoming election, other stories are still being written. Of course, data that can illuminate different elements of the pandemic is breaking through, but we are seeing good coverage for clients securing venture capital financing, getting acquired, and launching new cloud-based and digital service offerings. And of course, there are the vertical reporters who are still covering their standard beats. 

When we reach out, timing and sensitivity are critical. We’re making decisions about what to pitch based on what is happening in the news each day and each hour. We’re also amping up social listening posts to inform these initiatives. I’ll be posting a Q&A with Sam Whitmore of the Sam Whitmore Media Survey later this week where we discuss what he is hearing from the media in terms of their coverage focus.

Talk to Your Local Media. We were seeing a resurgence of local media markets early this year and COVID-19 seems to be spurring a greater focus here, as residents seek local trusted sources of information, and business communities seek examples among their geographic peers about how to handle their operations. Local reporters have been seeking information about how companies are handling work from home, how they are dealing with COVID-19 cases within their employee bases, how they are navigating business in a virtual economy, and how parents can entertain their children while school is closed. Local reporters also want to know about businesses that are innovating during this time. 

Build Community. Community can spontaneously sprout from difficulty when there is a convening voice of compassionate clarity. It can also go the other way. While I always recommend leading with hope, it’s critical right now. I often say that fear is a good way to get people to click on headlines, but it’s a terrible way to get people to trust you

Look at your audiences and ask how you can help and how you can connect. I’ve been inspired by airlines making it easier to change flights, restaurants moving to take-out models, yoga studios offering online classes, delivery services offering no-contact drop-offs, employers offering virtual storytime for employees’ children, universities offering digital classes, and cities like Boston raising funds for businesses that are affected. Consider the following strategies:

  • A community hub with resources and idea exchanges around how your people are adapting to a virtual economy. What content already exists that can power these discussions?
  • Virtual face-time for audiences to ask questions. Politicians are holding virtual town hall meetings. Musicians are doing virtual concerts. 
  • Thought leadership through online panel discussions and discussions that would have otherwise been done live. Record your talk on your phone and get it out there.
  • Virtual happy hours, contests, etc. (see our How to Work from Home post).

 

Go Digital. Your audiences will be spending more time on their screens in the coming weeks and months, and they will be looking for content beyond COVID-19. We’ve seen the influencers we work with proactively asking their communities what kind of content they want to see. The overwhelming answer is that they want “normal” content, perhaps just a little less of it. As with media outreach, your communications should be selective and sensitive (see How to behave in the wake of a tragedy). I’m not talking about sending out discount coupons. I’m talking about content with depth that helps people remember that the world goes on, and that they have interests that also go on. Consider the following tools:

  • Direct email, which can be more personal because your audience has opted in. These can be repurposed for blog posts and social media posts targeted at a broader audience. 
  • Virtual events that keep the pace of business (and lead generation) going. The term “virtual events” is at a five-year high in search popularity this week. 
    blog graphic_virtual events-01 (1)

We have clients who are conducting virtual user conferences, offering free access to their cloud-based services, giving out virtual badges to raise money for important causes, and more. We’ll be blogging about these in the days and weeks to come. 

  • Social media is a good place for community building. And paid social media helps amplify your messages to rise above the din. It is important that your message isn’t self-serving but instead is: informative, educational or offers a unique point of view. Reassess planned content through that lens and be sure to push out posts/campaigns that may come across as too “promotional.” It’s a good time to build brand awareness, but not a good time to push products.

 

Be a Leading Voice. Today, people trust business leaders more than they trust the government. Whether it’s in the media, or through direct and digital communications, business leaders have the opportunity to counter fear with clarity, and to help our communities navigate this unprecedented challenge. But it means we can’t stay quiet in our home offices. We have to make our voices heard, even when we’re saying things that are hard. We have to be the ones to see the way past where we are, to where we’re heading. 

Stay tuned here and on our social channels where we’ll be posting more strategies for media relations, virtual events and social media in the coming days. 

Topics: crisis management, PR industry
Beth Monaghan

Beth is the CEO of Inkhouse, which she co-founded in 2007 and has grown into one of the top ranked agencies in the country. Beth’s been recognized as one of the Top Women in PR by PR News, the Top 25 Innovators by The Holmes Report and as an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. Beth believes that shared values, and the freedom to create are the foundations of all meaningful work. She brings this philosophy to building a culture of creative progress at Inkhouse.

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