We’re all in the middle of navigating the COVID-19 crisis and, in such uncharted territory, many of us are struggling with how to approach things that previously came naturally. How we feed ourselves, the way we work, the way we interact with others—everything has changed. This also applies to how we communicate, and the messages that we—as individuals, businesses, and brands—convey to our audiences. In public relations, this is what we do best: conduct outreach to let people know the latest and greatest client news, leadership topics, and other noteworthy actions.
All of this changes in a crisis. We must step back and look at our messaging in a different light, understanding how our communications sound in the face of a certain situation. A very simple example is that using the phrase “pull the trigger” isn’t smart if there’s just been a school shooting. In the case of the global pandemic we are currently facing, it’s really a case of empathy and sensitivity to how messages may sound to external audiences. We don’t want to appear oblivious, putting forth a message that seems out-of-touch and off-base.
Not only is honesty the best policy, but it is vital at a time when people are seeking solid guidance in a very real crisis.
In addition to overall messaging concerns, many must plan for direct impacts to their business, customers, employees, and other stakeholders. It can be confusing and overwhelming, and we all need to make sure we cover all the bases and are doing the right thing. A misstep in times when emotions are high can be devastating for a brand. Some questions we’ve been exploring with our clients over the past two weeks include:
- Should we speak out about the COVID-19 subject or avoid it?
- If we address it, how do we do so?
- Is everyone starting to get weary; is it time to focus on something else?
- If we talk about anything but the virus will we come off as insensitive?
- If we don’t address it, will we still be in business in a few weeks?
We’re closely tracking trends and news cycles, and have been watching what others are doing well—and less well—to help our clients make their way in a marketplace that has become like a science fiction movie. We’ve noticed a lot of companies following the same-old, same-old approach, including:
One phenomenon we have noted is the tendency for companies to simply repeat information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO). This is fine and safe but does not really impart any personalized sense of caring from you to your customers, at a time when they need it most. What are some of your own thoughts on the matter? How has your business been impacted? By bringing these topics to life, you can augment your message, while still delivering the safe and accepted information from the authorities.
Avoiding the subject
If you don’t address COVID-19 at all, you run the risk of appearing tone deaf. Yes, ‘everyone’ is sending out their message on the subject, but that doesn’t mean you cannot or should not. As stated above, you can dig into your own company culture and values to develop a message or approach that is sincere and authentic to your organization. This isn’t a conversation that anyone in the world wants to be part of; in fact, we probably all wish this was just a bad dream. However, it is happening, and facing it with grace and sensitivity is a good best practice.
Pivoting to sales
Right now, people across the board are concerned—we have yet to run across someone who is not. So, to send them a message about your latest product without addressing the elephant in the room may be perceived as selfish or insensitive. Providing a caring message about steps you are taking and ways you can help your customers along with a message that simply lets them know you are still in business and still available to assist is a better approach. It’s not the time for a hard sell or insensitive advertising of your products and services. Subsequent communications stating that you’re there for them and available for consult seem to resonate with those we’ve polled. Some companies have even offered add-on services for free with a message of support for their community.
One of the things we’ve noticed—along with mg and NORML—are the numerous unscrupulous companies promoting their whole plant cannabis and/or CBD products as being able to cure the virus or boost the body’s natural immunity to the virus. These medical claims are unsubstantiated and there is no clinical data to support the theory cannabis can cure COVID-19. At a time when misinformation is rampant, press releases and ads making such claims just add to the confusion. In this case, not only is honesty the best policy, but it is vital at a time when people are seeking solid guidance in a very real crisis.
Timing is everything
If at the end of 2019, or early in 2020, you established press outreach as part of your 2020 public relations (PR) strategy with a plan that relies heavily on selling your products and services, you may want to rethink the cadence of that outreach. What advice or consult can you offer to your clients now that the atmosphere has shifted? How can your message be made relevant to the current situation?
Our team, which has been fielding calls and emails from concerned clients for weeks, has these recommendations to offer:
“I have been a fan of companies that are stressing the importance of keeping everyone in their community safe and healthy—including not only employees, but also customers and industry partners.” —Morgan Whitehouse, account manager, Campbell Consulting Group
“We helped one of our clients in the market research space develop a webinar that addressed the consequences of the virus on customers—specifically anxiety and apprehension—as opposed to addressing the virus itself. This was very well received, as readers grow weary of the influx of the same kind of information over and over. And we just assisted another client in focusing its communications on its core values as a jumping off point for a recent blog post. This company focuses a lot on the human side of their business, with curiosity being one of its drivers. At this time, they shifted the focus to empathy, which is even more needed in this time of crisis. This reference to human emotions is a way of helping connect on a deeper level to customers.” —Marie Melsheimer, senior vice president, Campbell Consulting Group
“Be mindful of pre-scheduled press releases and content. Now is the time to review and think through expected reactions to anything that might come off as insensitive. Where you communicate is also key. Twitter has seen a spike in usage because that’s where breaking news is coming out first, even earlier than Instagram.” —Ely Ann Vedar, account manager at Campbell Consulting Group and principal at Ely Agency
At mg, Erica Heathman, who has received plenty of outreach from companies actually looking to profit off of the novel coronavirus, said, “The best press releases have focused on what companies are doing to ensure the health and safety of employees, their communities, and updates to services with public health in mind (expanded delivery, curbside pickup, etc.).”
The Small Business Administration had these tips to share: “It’s critical to communicate openly with your customers about the status of your operations, what protective measures you’ve implemented, and how they (as customers) will be protected when they visit your business. Promotions may also help incentivize customers who may be reluctant to patronize your business.”
This singular time in our history calls for an extraordinary approach.
There’s a lot to think about when the entire world, your country, your community, and your family, employees, and customers are in the middle of a crisis. This singular time in our history calls for an extraordinary approach. Our communications define us, so it is important to place a layer of thoughtfulness over your messages during the COVID-19 situation. Be a voice of reason, calm, and knowledge, and consider your approach carefully. Take a step back and consider your outreach through the lens of an audience that is filled with people who are looking for stability in an unstable time.
Judy Campbell is president at Campbell Consulting. She founded the agency in 1996 to provide companies with strategic communications counsel encompassing public relations, digital communications, content creation, media training, and social media. Campbell Consulting is dedicated to shining a spotlight on the country’s best brands and thought leaders in cannabis, craft beer, hospitality, food and beverage, blockchain, and software.