Communicating in the Time of Coronavirus
I’ve been hearing lots of questions from clients and team members alike in the past week or so about how to go about our jobs in the face of current events (or communicating in the time of coronavirus). Undeniably, it’s the smallest of concerns in light of those suffering today. Still, as many of us try to carry on – I’m personally going on my second full week of working from home – there’s a great deal of uncertainty around what is “business as usual” for PR pros today.
I’ve been around long enough to have experienced previous upheavals like Y2K, 9/11, the “Dot Com” bubble and the 2008 global financial crisis. All were trying, unsettling times. But it’s difficult to wrap my head around the magnitude of what’s happening today, with entire industries grinding to a halt as we all do our part to stop the spread of coronavirus. This one feels uniquely different.
We’re in uncharted territory today, and there’s no playbook for responding to the challenges facing the clients we represent – yet alone managing our own business. But here are a few observations I’ve noticed in recent days. Given how circumstances are changing from day to day and hour to hour even, take these insights with a grain of salt because this is such a dynamic situation.
1. Now is not the time to sell
Not surprisingly, there seems to be a growing negative response to coronavirus-related marketing that’s too tangential or loosely tied to the global pandemic. Basically, don’t look like you’re trying to “sell” using the disease as a hook (see this recent Muck Rack blog post for examples of what not to do).
2. If you have something meaningful or helpful to say, say it
Based on limited experience in recent days, stories that are legitimately insightful or impactful are okay – if you are judicious in how you frame the narrative and approach the media (more on that in a moment). If you have a service or product offering that can genuinely help people in this time of need (such as Comcast offering free internet access to low-income residents or educational software companies providing free online learning tools for students), I’d focus on informing – not promoting.
3. Reporter queries are fair game
Reporter queries, such as HARO Source Requests, ProfNet for Experts and Qwoted, are more valuable than ever because you know those reporters are covering the topic of their request. In addition, email pitch platforms, like OnePitch, which matches your story pitch to journalists’ preferences, are less intrusive and more targeted.
After scanning HARO email queries closely this week, I’m seeing plenty of non-coronavirus requests for expert sources. I’d focus more effort in this direction right now. But a word of caution: I responded to one last week and the writer (an Inc. contributor) indicated that he received more than 300 responses.
4. Reconsider stories for business & consumer press
What to do if your client / company has an upcoming product launch or funding news to announce? Any stories for the general business and consumer media that are not coronavirus-related will face a strong headwind for the next few weeks (at least). We started outreach on a consumer pitch right as coronavirus was taking off in the media and quickly put the brakes on outreach soon after noticing there was little appetite for what we were pitching.
If you have a story for consumer or business press audience that can be pushed out, I’d do so. Concerned that your funding news will slip out in an SEC Edgar filing? I’d try waiting it out. At this point, it’s probably smarter to answer incoming questions (there’s always more to the story than what’s in the filing anyhow) than try to share it proactively.
5. Consider vertical trade media
While the tide appears to be turning, we have found that the vertical trade media are still covering more traditional news and insights. As such, we’ve turned our attention to pitching contributed articles and case studies and dedicating more time to award submissions. As recently as Friday, we had a contributed article accepted by a leading trade publication for one of our clients.
6. Pitch cautiously and be upfront
As the crisis unfolds, many reporters are being reassigned from their regular beats. To the previous point on pitching contributed articles to trade media, take extra care to make sure the reporters and editors you are targeting are still writing about other topics. You’d do this anyway but dedicate even more time to scanning recent coverage and Twitter feeds to see what they’re saying – if anything – about coronavirus.
PR is a fast-paced business, but we need to be more measured, sensitive and mindful than ever while doing what we do.
7. Explore educational and thought leadership content
Companies are seeing a surge in time spent on websites and increases in downloadable material. The thinking here is that as more people work from home and try to feel productive, they’re turning to educational materials to fill the gap (“I might as well research this thing I need to know while I have time…”). It’s unclear as yet whether this stretches to thought leadership and educational pieces in media, but I’d assume so.
8. Think twice, even three times before hitting send
If you’re not sure whether a communication or pitch is in good taste, relevant or timely don’t send it. Everyone, media included, is especially sensitive right now. You can do lasting damage to relationships or your brand with something that comes across as tone deaf or shamelessly opportunistic.
Again, these are a few initial observations from my colleagues and me. Please feel free to share additional insights here as well. And we’ll do the same as this situation continues to unfold. Stay safe and be well.