Pitching media during the COVID-19 crisis

In the U.S., we have found ourselves in an unprecedented situation: a pandemic combined with a national economic shutdown and widespread social unrest. Many businesses and non-profits have repeatedly asked about the timing of any type of public relations efforts.

  • Is now the right time to announce a product launch?
  • Should we try to connect our message to COVID-19?
  • Can we break through with our message given what’s happening in the world?
  • Are reporters/producers looking or eager for stories that aren’t COVID-19 related?
  • Will we be seen as tactless if we try to get our message out now?

Compounding these questions is the state of the media itself. While the news industry has been experiencing financial challenges for decades, COVID-19 has had a swift and devastating impact on the Fourth Estate at the exact time Americans stuck at home are rediscovering the importance of good journalism.

According to The New York Times, furloughs and layoffs have impacted nearly 40,000 journalists since the pandemic began in the U.S. Those who aren’t furloughed or laid off are working remotely, doing more with less, and are harder to reach than ever. What I’ve heard personally from reporters and editors at major daily metropolitan newspapers, news desks and producers of broadcast news and journalists at a range of trade media is their inboxes are inundated with hundreds of pitches, nearly all including COVID-19 in the subject line.

So how do you break through? Patient persistence.

In times normal and otherwise, it is essential to have a compelling and relevant story to tell. We advise our clients to work backward from the reader/viewer/listener perspective when evaluating the newsworthiness of any message. Absent your brand, would a generic story like yours be of interest or value to the intended audience? If it is promotional, only about your brand or is out-of-touch with the state of the world, stop right there, toss your pitch into the garbage and, if I may be so bold, set fire to it. In the midst of a pandemic, you can’t afford to sound out of touch.

My advice is also the advice good journalists give to public relations professionals all the time: do your research. This is the time-consuming leg work that pays off; the work often overlooked or even ignored by those who “just want to get the message out.” Beats, for those who still have them, are less ridged than ever. That green energy beat reporter from last week might be covering Capital Hill tomorrow. Look back at their recent work and make an informed decision as to whether their work indicates a reasonable wiliness to learn about your story.

If you feel you have a newsworthy story, and if you believe the journalist you want to contact might be interested, email away and then follow-up afterward. But assume your email is just to get on their radar. They won’t read your pitch if it is longer than 100 words or has an attachment. Bullet points can help. In times like these, getting on the phone with a reporter — assuming he or she will take your call — is the make-or-break moment of a pitch and is simultaneously nearly impossible.

I recently pitched a national story to an editor at major daily newspaper. Where I would normally follow up two or three times, I left two voicemails and emailed five times. He actually called me back, thanked me for being persistent and then asked me to “just tell [him] what the story is about.” He remembered seeing my email (just one?) but “didn’t have time to read it.” So, I gave him the 15-second elevator pitch. He liked it and ended up not only interviewing my sources but running a major feature article on the issue. Patient persistence.

COVID-19, and the economic fallout from it, will continue to have lingering effects all across the U.S. economy. Journalism is not immune from this, and this will continue to pose challenges to those engaging with the media. I advise patient persistence in getting your message out. A tenacious PR professional helps a lot, too.

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selective focus close up photo of smiling woman in white shirt using a phone

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

During the COVID-19 pandemic, your employees, clients, partners and other stakeholders are getting their messages from sources ranging from the CDC to Instagram. Writing in PropertyCasualty360, KHPR President Gary Kimball asks: shouldn’t some of that messaging come from you? He provides guidance on how business leaders can communicate with their audiences — read it here.

Download our Communications Checklist

KHPR Download

For businesses, there is a right and wrong way to communicate during a crisis as tragic and widespread as the COVID-19 pandemic. We all know the wrong approach when we see it — but how do we do the right thing? We hope our Communications Checklist points you in the right direction

Click here to download the KHPR Communications Checklist.

(It’s free to download and we’re won’t make you sign up for anything — that link takes you directly to a PDF download.)

If you need further guidance during this trying time, please rest assured that our team is fully operational and ready to support you. Reach out at info@kimballpr.com for general inquiries, or connect with the Kimball Hughes PR team on LinkedIn.

Thinking About Thought Leadership

How thought leadership can help in a crisis

A colleague recently shared an article published in The New Yorker in 2009 about how Kellogg responded to the Great Depression. In the 1920s, along with its main rival Post, the company dominated the then new packaged cereal market. The New Yorker summarized Kellogg’s reaction to the country’s economic collapse this way:

“Post did the predictable thing: it reined in expenses and cut back on advertising. But Kellogg doubled its ad budget, moved aggressively into radio advertising, and heavily pushed its new cereal, Rice Krispies. … By 1933, even as the economy cratered, Kellogg’s profits had risen almost thirty percent and it had become what it remains today: the industry’s dominant player.”

This is how just one company responded to a crisis nearly 100 years ago. But it does address a question many companies are facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic:

In the face of a temporary but significant economic downturn what do we do with our marketing and communications budgets?

As I write this, the stock market is reacting to the U.S. Labor Department announcement that unemployment benefit claims soared to 3.28 million last week. I’ll leave it to the marketing and advertising gurus to comment on their budgets, but I can speak to communications efforts that may be worthwhile to pursue in this environment, especially for B2B companies.

Some public relations efforts, such as product launches, events and location openings are being postponed or suspended because they aren’t relevant or would be lost in the pandemic news reports. Those are generally wise moves.

At the same time we are seeing a need for thought leadership from industry leaders who can write articles or blogs (what I’m doing here), produce videos and podcasts, and do anything to share valuable ideas and opinions with their audience. As long as these messages are relevant and well done, they can have an immediate and long-term impact to build and maintain awareness of a company and its expertise.

Ramping up social media efforts with the same type of messages is also a good idea. And not just because more people are working remotely, but also because it’s estimated that more of us are on social media during this crisis than usual. And this change, along with higher usage of mobile apps and other digital communication platforms, may very well be permanent changes in your workplace.

So, my advice to business leaders as you navigate the disruptions caused by COVID-19 and plan for the future is this: Think about what you have to say, develop a thought leadership plan for the short- and long-term, align it with your changing business plans, and start sharing those thoughts through multiple digital channels.

The results may not be as dramatic Kellogg’s in the 1930s, but building awareness of your expertise may serve you well when the dust settles and business growth resumes.

Avoid These Cringe-Worthy Crisis Communications Errors

You don’t have to be a communications professional to cringe when you read certain emails and social media posts today. In the new COVID-19 world we find ourselves, it can be difficult for businesses to know what to say, when to say it and how often to say it to their clients and the public. Everyone wants to jump in with a message, look for revenue opportunities or offer helpful advice, but some do it better than others.

Below we offer common mistakes and some tips to avoid them.

4 Mistakes to Avoid When Communicating During a Crisis:

  1. Not adjusting scheduled social media posts in light of new circumstances. This should be an automatic step whether you’re facing a global pandemic or a crisis isolated to your business. Make sure you read them all, and then delete and edit them to be relevant and tasteful in the context of new circumstances.
  2. Going ahead with planned announcements without considering how they will be perceived. You may be excited about your latest opening or product launch, but such an announcement may be ignored or — worse — perceived as insensitive and opportunistic when you do it. Timing is everything.
  3. Being opportunistic. There is a difference between offering sincere help during difficult times and being perceived as trying to make an extra buck when others are suffering. It’s all about perceptions.
  4. Pitching related stories to the media that are just in very bad taste and opportunistic. Just take a look at this piece by Mashable to see PR people at their worst. PR pros should be able to know when they have an expert who can make a real contribution to a conversation and when it’s just a bad idea.

5 Things to Consider When Messaging:

How do you know whether your message will be well received or will make you appear careless and opportunistic?

  1. Put it in perspective. COVID-19, for example, is a global pandemic with unprecedented and tragic consequences. People are dying and more will die. Many more will lose their jobs, businesses will suffer and many will face economic and personal hardship. Most of us are scared and worried. Think about this when messaging and make sure your messages are in touch with the current reality.
  2. Make sure it’s relevant. In the context of the above, what is relevant? For example, this blog is being written to help prevent businesses from making mistakes when communicating during the current and future crises. That seems relevant to our audience and a way we can help.
  3. Does it address what your audience’s needs. Ask yourself if you’re tooting your own horn, going through the motions or really addressing what your clients, employees and partners need to know. Sometimes, as in the current environment when our mailboxes are full of COVID-19 messages, what your audience needs is a message as simple as “We’re here for you.”
  4. What are others doing? You don’t want to follow the crowd necessarily, but seeing what others in your industry are doing can help guide your decisions about what to do or what not to do.
  5. Test it. There no time for focus groups, but try running your message by a long-time partner or client who you trust and get their reaction.

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Reputation management through crises

For businesses, a compassionate and savvy response to the COVID-19 pandemic involves transparent, accurate and realistic communications. This serves to protect not only employees’ and customers’ health, but also a business’s reputations. In PropertyCasualty360, our VP Rod Hughes offers guidance on reputation and crisis communications for insurance professionals and all B2B professionals.

#WheresZuck and the Issue of Trust

no fb

Five days. That’s how long it took for Mark Zuckerberg to respond publicly after the revelation that Facebook data was used by U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica to aid the Trump campaign. During that time, Facebook stock lost more than $30 billion in value and #deleteFacebook swept other social media platforms.

Did he respond as fast as possible, gathering all the facts and developing a plan? Or did he wait too long? I’m always a fan of a fast response in the face of a crisis, but also of a response that is strategic and made with all the facts. So, look at the Facebook timeline:

On Monday Paul Grewal, deputy general counsel at Facebook, made the first comment, saying in an email that the company is taking action to make sure the data harvested has been deleted: “We are in the process of conducting a comprehensive internal and external review as we work to determine the accuracy of the claims that the Facebook data in question still exists,” he said. “That is where our focus lies as we remain committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information.”

Monday’s news read like this CNBC report: “The future of Facebook as an advertising platform was called into question by marketers, lawmakers and privacy activists on Monday after revelations that its data on 50 million users was harvested and used by Donald Trump’s political ad firm in 2016.” A hashtag also appeared: #WheresZuck, a sign that the world was waiting for the founder to speak.

On Tuesday, Facebook went further in a statement: “Mark, Sheryl and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue. The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.”

Their strategy was clear: to say that they, too, were victims who were violated and they would take strong action. They also promised Mark would speak on Wednesday—by which time #DeleteFacebook was trending, a WhatsApp cofounder had joined the movement and tens of thousands of users had, indeed, deleted Facebook. Plus, governments on both sides of the Atlantic were calling for more regulation.

When Mark finally spoke on Wednesday, putting a long statement on Facebook, he took responsibility and laid out a plan to ensure this doesn’t happen again. But he stopped short of apologizing (which he did later in media interviews).

So, was five days too long to wait for the Facebook response? It seems so. Even if they needed time to gather all the facts and formulate a plan, Zuckerberg could have posted this himself, because it seems his audience only would hear from him, something he should have known. And what was never addressed was why nothing was disclosed about a problem that may have known about since 2015.

Dante Disparte outlines the problem nicely:

The coat of Teflon that usually shields Facebook and its affable leader, Mark Zuckerberg, who has matured into a techno statesman in the public eye, is beginning to wear thin. Facebook now joins a growing number of firms embroiled in a trust deficit with a case of reputation risk whiplash. …Facebook’s eroding market confidence appears to be self-induced by 5 days of silence and lax third-party risk management. Reports of more than 50 million personal records being accessed by Cambridge Analytica… is not only a terrible violation of consumer privacy, it highlights how trust (the new thrift of the modern economy), is hard to earn and easy to lose. (Read more in Disparte’s Wednesday article in Forbes.)

Losing the trust of regulators, business partners and the public—that’s what happens when your response to a crisis is too little, too late.

 

Rod discusses thought leadership in Legal Intelligencer

You may know your stuff, but that doesn’t mean you will be recognized as an authority on the topic. How can lawyers become thought leaders and better media sources? Rod answers that question for Meg Charendoff in a recent Legal Intelligencer article.

Ebola Strikes New York

Photo courtesy of the CDC.

Photo courtesy of the CDC.

It’s official. Ebola has scared the hell out of everyone. With Friday’s news story of a doctor in New York City being diagnosed and today’s “testing” of a 5-year-old boy for Ebola as well in the Big Apple, hysteria is sure to hit new heights.

However, as public relations professionals, our job is to offer wise council in times of crisis. We must anticipate how this latest news impacts our partners and determine how best to help them inform and better educate their audiences. A myriad of businesses can find themselves in the center of a media storm as Friday’s NYC media coverage demonstrated.

So the best advice for businesses is to start with facts.

For those businesses being asked about Ebola risks and protocols – and the public’s perception of your business’ Ebola risk – there are five steps to take quickly:

  1. Share the latest information from a recognized authority source (e.g., the CDC, the World Health Organization, your local or state department of health, etc.). Unless you are a medical professional well versed in infectious diseases, regardless of your business, you have no business advising on health issues. Leave that to the professionals and simply point people in the right direction.
  2. Examine your realistic exposure. NPR recently reported most American’s have a 1 in 13.3 million shot at contracting Ebola. In fact, NPR suggests studies show you’re more likely to die from a lightning strike or a bee sting than you are of catching Ebola. While many businesses are not likely to be at risk, the Manhattan case from Friday demonstrated how Uber, a Brooklyn bowling alley and NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority needed to address Ebola concerns on a moment’s notice. Therefore it’s helpful to have thought through your messaging and delivery method in advance.
  3. Reassure your audiences you are following coverage and authoritative information of U.S. Ebola cases so as not to be surprised by developments that could impact your business operations or vendor relationships.
  4. Consult with your public relations professional to ensure any crisis communications plan your organization has in place is updated and that your team is prepared to respond quickly.
  5. Update your audiences as appropriate.

A sixth but less urgent step is to revisit your crisis communications plans at the conclusion of this latest pubic health scare to fine tune your policies and procedures so you are better prepared next time. And trust me, there will be a next time.

Ignorance Is Not a Brand Attribute

Media outlets everywhere have covered Groupon's Presidents' Day marketing stunt. The question is if this hurts or helps the brand in the long term.

Many media outlets, like the Chicago Tribune, have covered Groupon’s President’s Day marketing stunt. The question is if this stunt hurts or helps the brand in the long term.

As marketing tools, sometimes stunts work. They get the media’s attention. They take your brand “viral.” They get people talking about you. They create “buzz.”

When activists delivered a 13-foot tall gluten-free cake to Capital Hill in May 2011 to advocate that the Food and Drug Administration enforce gluten-free labeling standards, the stunt worked. There was plenty of media coverage. It supported the mission to which the activists were committed. It alerted consumers to issues surrounding the food they eat.

However, Groupon’s latest stunt – calling Alexander Hamilton “undeniably one of our greatest presidents” to promote a Presidents’ Day special – will not serve the brand well.

Sure, Groupon is quirky. Some might say it’s quirky to the point of being ridiculous. I’ll also grant you the Groupon stunt is getting buzz. There’s plenty of media coverage (heck, it prompted me to write this spiffy blog post).

But this stunt also gives the impression Groupon doesn’t know the facts (e.g., Hamilton was U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, not President). In trying to look too cool for school, Groupon instead comes across as out of touch with details – something that might make consumers wary. Thoughtful consumers might at first be amused. But on reflection, will they trust leaving their credit card information with a company that portrays ignorance as an attribute?

Hamilton’s briefly mistaken moment in U.S. presidential history won’t sink Groupon – assuming people are still using it. In fact, in the short run, it will have everyone talking about Groupon. That is what stunts do; they create buzz.

It’s the long run that is a problem. How does Hamilton fit the brand? More importantly, how does portraying a fundamental misunderstanding of history convince consumers to spend their Hamiltons, and Washingtons and Lincolns with Groupon?

Any good public relations professional will tell you buzz doesn’t always last and stunts like this don’t help the long term reputation of Groupon with consumers.

Mr. Hamilton would not be amused or impressed by Groupon’s stunt. Those using his likeness shouldn’t be either.