PR in a Pandemic: Four Lessons for Communicating During the COVID-19 Crisis
March 31, 2020
Now, more than ever, it’s critical to communicate with purpose. GMMB’s earned media strategists offer lessons on how organizations should engage with media during the COVID-19 pandemic.
No matter the news cycle, media coverage needs to be earned by offering newsworthy stories and conducting thoughtful outreach. As updates on COVID-19 continue around-the-clock, PR professionals need to react in real-time.
For our clients doing public health work around COVID-19, our effort has been fast-paced to get critical information into the hands of high-risk populations. National media is almost fully pandemic-focused right now, and local and regional outlets are reacting to Shelter in Place orders and local impacts. And at all levels, outlets are trying to fact check new information in real-time. As that has become more difficult, we’ve seen some outlets making minute-to-minute decisions to stop airing White House press briefings on the coronavirus due to potentially dangerous and misleading information being shared.
For our clients whose work is not as directly tied to the pandemic, GMMB’s earned media strategists are advising clients to pause, breathe, and consider their place in the rapidly-shifting landscape. We’re applying four key lessons:
In times of crisis, it’s critical to communicate clearly, empathetically, early, and often. But for clients that don’t have resources, experts, or information that can enrich media coverage of COVID-19 and its impacts, the ongoing election cycle, or current economic issues—that communication should be limited to staff, partners, and key stakeholders for the time being.
Journalists are people too, adjusting to changed lives and work just like we are. Many are quarantined with family members, juggling work with grocery shopping, coworking with partners, and educating kids at home. Those covering COVID-19 are trying to avoid illness while faced with a never-ending cycle of bleak news and misinformation.
Now, more than ever, it’s critical to pitch with empathy. So, we’re adjusting our strategies—pitching primarily via email, giving longer leads on embargoed news, and anticipating longer timelines between interviews and stories posting. And most importantly, we’re focusing only on the stories that truly need to be told right now.
As news coverage reaches an equilibrium, understanding the landscape is critical to telling important stories. We’re tracking both the spread of COVID-19 and news coverage of its impacts to inform how we choose stories to elevate. For our clients working to combat threats to reproductive rights, the rise in domestic violence, and educational disparities caused by responses to the COVIC-19 pandemic, we’re working to connect with reporters diving deep into these issues to inform broader coverage. As the impacts of the stimulus start to unfold, we anticipate more coverage of financial impacts as well.
This is going to get worse before it gets better, both for public health and for the earned media landscape as journalists and news consumers grapple with our new normal. As infection rates and death tolls peak in the next few weeks, media coverage will be understandably grim. In the meantime, we’re focusing on what we can do:
- Conduct an inventory of resources, data, stories, and experts that clients can offer to reporters to support coverage of COVID-19 and its far-reaching impacts.
- Stay on top of the news by conducting real-time media monitoring, and following Twitter lists for breaking news and COVID-19 coverage.
- Keep up with our favorite journalists on Twitter via our own curated lists and responding with relevant content when they put out requests for stories—which we’re seeing more frequently.
- Update messaging, websites, and social to ensure that each reflects the state of the news and key audiences’ priorities.
- Prepare to tell success stories after this crisis is over. So many of our clients have jumped into action to support their employees and others in need during this time. We’re capturing those stories and lessons learned now, to ensure that they continue to make an impact in the aftermath of this pandemic.
- Pause non-essential outreach or requests for deskside chats and briefings (even via video chat) until major cities are out of lockdown.
And finally, some good news: News consumption has skyrocketed in the U.S. over the past few weeks, and according to the Pew Research Center, 70% of Americans say the news media are doing “very well” (30%) or “somewhat well” (40%) covering the COVID-19 virus. And roughly half of U.S. adults (51%) are following news about it “very closely,” with another 38% following it “fairly closely.”