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PR coronavirus responseAs businesses, schools and nonprofits close or revamp operations to limit the spread of the coronavirus, officially termed COVID-19, communications has become vital. Marketing and PR must rise to the occasion to relay important information to consumers, employees and business partners.

More than three-quarters of communication executives (81%) said the communication function has been “important” or “very important” to their organization’s COVID-19 response, according to a new study by the Institute for Public Relations and Peppercomm. “People in our function are being heavily relied on in a time like this,” says Rob Clark, chief communications officer at Medtronic. “We are the tip of the spear on this issue and rightfully so.”

Website Statements

Both large corporations and small businesses typically turn to their websites to announce news, but their coronavirus statements vary in length and topics, depending on their industry and company size.

Ideally, the statements provide clear, up-to-date information on how the company is responding to the crisis, with a minimum of extraneous verbiage. Starbucks announced it is temporarily changing to a “to go” only for US and Canadian stores. Nike announced it will close stores in multiple countries around the world through March 27. HubSpot explained how its social distancing policies will impact employees, visitors and its events.

The updates generally cover:

  • The impact on customers
  • How employees are being protected
  • How customer service will be affected
  • The location of changes to service
  • A minimum amount of time the impact will last, although many say indefinitely.

Place the announcements on every website the organization owns, just below the masthead, recommends Dave Chaffey, content director at Smart Insights.

Adding news and information to website FYI sections can help inform customers. “It’s really obvious, but so important to be fresh and current maybe every couple of days. What’s the status? What are people asking when they call? What fears can you allay up front in writing and make them findable in search on your website,” advises Erik Newton, vice president of marketing at digital marketing agency Milestone.

Brand Journalism

Many brands are stepping up their brand journalism, filling the gaps for overextended news outlets, points out Jim Ylisela, co-owner and senior partner of Ragan Consulting Group. “It’s easy to tell stories when times are good. It’s crucial to do so in a crisis,” Ylisela states.

Some of the outstanding brand journalism sites include Coverage from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Blue Sky News from Pittsburgh International Airport, and Folio from University of Alberta. Their reports have included a video interview of a physician, news on how airport maintenance crews protect travelers and staff, and a story of a university researcher developing a point-of-care diagnostic tool.

Brand journalism, sometimes called corporate journalism or corporate media, can increase website traffic, educate stakeholders, publicize the organization’s good deeds, and attract customers. But effective brand journalism requires dropping traditional PR and marketing practices and acting like a journalist with a single-minded focus to inform the organizations constituencies on the issues and recent developments.

Beware of Email Overload

Many communications professionals advise communicating frequently to customers and other stakeholders. But can you communicate too much? A PR Daily Twitter poll found that 45% of people want they only want to hear from health care authorities and organizations about the crisis. About 28% said every organization should send messages on what they’re doing, but close to 23% said they don’t want to receive any emails at all.

The results suggest that marketers may wish to carefully consider if every message is necessary and strive to send messages to targeted audiences. I have received many self-centered emails from companies that had no information relevant to me. The companies were merely trying to polish their own ego of the corporate hierarchy. The messages, in effect, said – “See we’re doing a great job.”  They provided no help to me and most showed no empathy to what workers and customers were facing. Better not to send any message than one like that.

Coronavirus Crisis Communications Plans

While most large companies have created PR crisis plans, crisis communications experts advocate tailoring the crisis plan to the coronavirus outbreak. A crisis communications plan dedicated to the issue outlines how information will be communicated to internal and external stakeholders and the general public. Name a crisis response team, with an assigned spokesperson and representation from high-level decision makers from main company departments, outside crisis management consultant, PR and legal counsel. Create communications that respond to a variety of different scenarios and have them vetted by legal staff.

“Set up an expedited legal vetting process, and work with digital teams to identify how content will be conveyed through the company’s owned channels,” recommends Julie Ogilvie, vice president, principal analyst, at Forrester Research Inc. Also prepare spokespeople with concise answers that can be given without additional approvals.

A caution: Lawyers often “legalize” communications. In this crisis, it’s vital to be empathetic, not legalistic.

Monitor the Issue

Use a media monitoring tool to understand how the audience is reacting to the crisis and your brand’s response in traditional and social media. Understanding what is being said can be the key to containing a negative situation or understanding when the crisis is winding down. Create a media monitoring dashboard focused specifically on the issue — with coverage of trending topics, sentiment, impact by geography or channel, and key coverage, Ogilvie urges.

It’s critical to work with a vendor that can create customized media monitoring and measurement dashboards for that purpose. Because of the importance of social media, it’s also essential to select a monitoring tool that combines social media listening with news monitoring into an integrated, all-in-one online dashboard for comprehensive measurement.

Bottom Line: Organizations are relying heavily on their communications professionals to inform customers and others about how they’re reacting to the COVID-19 crisis. As the crisis continues, PR and marketing personnel will remain critically important to develop communications strategy and copy.