Businesses, organizations, and brands around the globe are facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions, and it’s only the beginning. The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on the health of millions of people around the globe, and leaving a trail of economic destruction in its wake.
Unlike PR crises we’ve seen dominate headlines in the past, this is a crisis we as business owners didn’t cause, and couldn’t avoid. We may not be at fault for the crisis, but we’re absolutely responsible for responding to it, and leading our employees, stakeholders, and customers through the storm.
The worst thing we can do for ourselves and the brands we represent is to pretend that things are business as usual. Things are anything but usual, and it’s our responsibility to acknowledge that.
Surviving and thriving in a post-Coronavirus world is going to take planning, crisis communication and swift action. Consider these six hallmarks of crisis PR to create an impactful plan to get you through the crisis and beyond.
1. Assemble a Team to Address the Changes
Even the best laid crisis PR plans may not have adequately prepared your team for COVID-19. What we’re facing now is truly unprecedented, and you may need to adapt your strategy (or create an entirely new one) in response to what we’re all facing.
Joshua Kail of Press Pass LA offers this advice, ‘What companies need to do is address the crisis as if it was their own, not in issuing an apology, but in acknowledging the changes, addressing concerns proactively, and offering actionable behaviors which their target audiences can take.”
“No one is expecting a toy company or a restaurant to have the cure for coronavirus, but brands who are proactive, transparent, and embrace the humanity of the situation in their PR actions today, can benefit from strengthened brand loyalty and customer retention, once things get back to normal,” Kail continues.
As you form the rest of the components of your new crisis communication and PR plan, consider who will be leading the charges. This would be the ideal time to choose a spokesperson who will be the point of contact for press and stakeholder inquiries. This person should be informed of every step and know how to communicate important information to the public, to employees, to stakeholders, and to customers.
2. Create an Open Communication Channel
As your plan progresses, keep your employees and the public informed about emerging issues, and communicate in a timely manner. Lagging behind could cost your reputation, and your market share.
“While the media is a bullhorn during a crisis – and spokespeople should be trained on how to manage the media during a crisis – it’s important for a company to identify all it’s critical audiences and use a variety of communication channels to reach them,” offers Jo Trizila of TrizCom Public Relations.
Update your website, social media and apps with changes, announcements and other important information. For example, let people know what is happening with your workforce, hours, sanitation measures, payment policies, and more. Be sure to let everyone know what your plans are and the reasons for them, and communicate the plans with empathy.
If you don’t know the answer to a current problem, it’s still important to communicate something. Holding statements are designed to let the public know that you are working on solutions to developing problems or emerging risks. This also gives you more time to prepare your PR spokesperson’s responses and statements.
Customers and employees will remember how you responded to this crisis. People are looking for leaders, and those who step up to communicate effectively, quickly, and with empathy will gain the most traction in their audiences.
If you don’t have a communications strategy, now is the time to create one, and deploy it.
3. Prepare for Eventualities
Although it may boost morale by being positive and uplifting in your external communications, it’s still imperative to plan for eventualities, including worst-case scenarios. Identify all risks and vulnerabilities and brainstorm solutions with your Crisis PR team members.
Your employees and stakeholders feel more valued when their input is considered, so considering hosting a brainstorming meeting or town hall discussion to garner feedback, discuss possibilities, and possible solutions.
4. Monitor the Situation and Adapt, If Necessary
The COVID-19 crisis is changing rapidly, and your Crisis PR response should be a living, breathing part of your business entity; not just something you deploy once and forget about.
“One of the strategies we have been implementing is communication in real-time through the use of chats and video conferencing. This allows our teams to be nimble and incredibly responsive through our clients’ digital channels and with members of the media,” explains Lisa Martin, the PR Director of Grady Britton.
During any PR crisis, it’s crucial to monitor the issue, and stay on top of breaking news and emerging trends. At some point, the evolution of the crisis may require you to adapt your plan and go back to the drawing board, or issue additional statements. If this happens, make changes quickly and communicate them with empathy.
Following a crisis, each day spent clinging to old strategies, is a day of opportunity lost.
5. Re-Allocate Marketing Budgets
Although budgeting may not normally be part of your Crisis PR plan, now would be the time to make it part of your plan. The marketing channels that were impactful for your brand two months ago may not be effective in getting you in front of an audience today.
The reality is, what you’re spending time and money on when things are going well, is rarely what you should be spending time and money on during times of crisis, and the situation we’re in right now is no different.
For example, event marketing and traditional marketing might be an integral part of your marketing budget under normal circumstances, but those channels aren’t going to get you where you need right now.
Consider the following. How can you reallocate your budgets right now, to something that would be more impactful? How can you meet your audience and stakeholders where they’re at right now?
People are online right now. They’re reading the news, and they’re on social media. By bumping up your efforts and budget in those disciplines, you can use the opportunity to reach a captive audience.
6. Consider a Thought Leadership Strategy
Thought leadership is hardly something that’s relegated only to times of crisis, but now is a prime opportunity to consider thought leadership if you haven’t already.
In a story I wrote for Social Media Today in 2017, I said something that’s just as relevant (if not moreso) today, “If you can establish yourself as an expert in your industry, potential clients and customers will inherently trust you more – and equally beneficial, bloggers and reporters will also respond to you more warmly if you’re seen as an industry leader.”
By positioning yourself as a thought leader in your industry, you’ll stay top of mind for customers and stakeholders, and become a solid resource for people around the world who are desperate for leaders to calm their fears.
The bottom line is, we’re all going through this crisis together, whether we want to or not. The best thing we can do for ourselves, our brands, and our stakeholders is to step up and lead people through the crisis, and stop clinging to old ways of doing business that no longer serve us.