Recently, we had the pleasure of working with the United Motorcoach Association on a quick-start social media toolkit for their members. We were tasked with an interesting challenge: help the industry speak with one voice as they asked for support from the Federal governement in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic — and help motorcoach operators new to social media adopt this tool for their future marketing efforts.
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.
What’s next? We asked ourselves this question after 9/11 and after the great recession, and we’re asking again, now in the midst of a pandemic. The answer, of course, is no one knows. It could be another terrorist attack, another pandemic or another financial crisis, or more likely, something we never imagined.
One thing is certain: we need our organizations to be prepared. It’s better to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Those with a Business Continuity Plan/Emergency Preparedness Plan, Crisis Response Plan — or whatever you want to call it — will be better equipped to respond quickly and effectively.
Communications are a big part of any plan, and whether you have a stand-alone crisis communications plan or one integrated in an overall BCP, you should have one. And now, while we’re all thinking about the impact COVID-19 has had on our organizations, is a perfect time to get started. Below are some guidelines to get started.
Learn from the past
Start by taking a look back at how your organization responded to the COVID-19 outbreak. What did you do right? More importantly, what did you do wrong? What resources will you need if something like this happens again? What are the risks to your business?
For example, were you equipped to communicate quickly and accurately with your clients? If you were contacted by the media, did you have media response protocols in place? Were you effective in keeping your employees informed and productive? Was there a process in place to timely convey mission-critical messaging to vendors, suppliers or your sales force?
Gather a team
You’ll respond as a team, so prepare as a team. Put together a crisis response team that covers executive management, legal, human resources and those responsible for communications and relationships with your key stakeholders—clients, shareholders, employees, media, etc.
Evaluate your risks
Next evaluate your risks. Where is your organization vulnerable? What type of crises could damage its reputation? Are those responsible for managing and responding to a crisis trained and ready to do so? By answering these questions, you’ll know what you need to do to prepare.
Write the Plan
There are several key components to a crisis communications plan:
Introduction: Why the plan is important and how it fits into your organization’s overall missions and structure.
Scope and Objectives: What the plan is designed to accomplish, what it covers and what it is does not.
Vulnerability Assessment: As discussed above, where the organization is vulnerable what that means for the plan.
Crisis Communications Team and Responsibilities: Names, contact information and responsibilities of each team member. Include external resources such as public relations agencies, legal counsel and other experts.
Media Response Procedures: Who are the primary and secondary spokespeople and what is the protocol throughout the organization in responding to a media inquiry. Social media should be addressed as well.
Plan Triggers: What type of event will trigger the plan, from contagions, data breach to natural disasters to unexpected legal action or negative media coverage.
Communications response: Step-by-step guide to activating the plan (team member contact, assessment and next steps), planning and execution (determining a response and delivering messaging) and evaluation and follow-up.
Messages and prepared communications: While messaging will be tailored to each situation, some core messaging around specific types of crises can be done in advance to ensure consistency with brand and reputation.
A crisis communications plan, like a BCP, is a living, breathing document that should be practiced with tabletop exercises or other training tools, and updated at least once a year and always after a new crisis.
It’s also a good time to contact a crisis communications professional and tap into his or her expertise. It’s an investment that can pay dividends when the unexpected happens.
COVID-19 has disrupted even the best business marketing and communications plans. If you are wondering how to get back on track with your messaging, looking for advice on the most appropriate way to promote your business during a pandemic, or if you need a plan to deal with the media, we can help.
Kimball Hughes Public Relations, a national agency based in Philadelphia, is hosting virtual office hours from 3pm EDT to 5pm EDT on May 28, 2020, offering FREE public relations consultation to organizations in need of assistance. We’ll listen and offer practical, expert advice on how to proceed.
Whether you are struggling to create effective messaging or simply need a seasoned professional to gut-check your current communications plans, Kimball Hughes PR can help.
These free consultation appointments are on a first-come, first serve basis. We’ll discuss your challenge during a 30- or 60-minute call. Depending on the issues, we’ll either offer advice on the call or follow up within 24 hours with thoughtful suggestions and advice on next steps you can take to help your business.
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.
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
(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 email@example.com for general inquiries, or connect with the Kimball Hughes PR team on LinkedIn.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.