COVID-19 Materials Employee Communications Public Relations

Communicators Pivot in Light of Coronavirus

By Kari Hernandez


As communicators, we have much to contend with right now as we face uncertainty from the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis. Some of our well-laid plans are being upended, across our professional and personal lives, and we are quickly adjusting to our new (and hopefully temporary) reality.

While our chief concern is protecting the health of our loved ones and colleagues, many of us have been hit with the business implications of the coronavirus first. We are seeing events canceled, travel restricted, and news cycles dominated. While no one knows how this new reality will fully impact our businesses and lives, it’s critical to act fast to adapt communications plans and messaging – and avoid missteps.

Here are five considerations to help your integrated communications programs remain as effective as possible in this unprecedented time.

1. Review content to ensure its relevance and sensitivity

Do this right now: Review all planned content for blogs, webinars, social media, contributed articles, email marketing, paid ads, and sales campaigns. Ensure it’s not tone-deaf. What was profound last week might seem petty, out of context, or even offensive this week. Consider whether evergreen content should be postponed and instead, publish helpful content that speaks to the mindset of the moment. And don’t force an angle if you don’t have a helpful perspective on the topic. Words matter – so choose them carefully.

As a next step, train your teams and spokespeople on any phrases or narratives that they should eliminate from their vocabulary for the duration of this crisis. If there are big changes, consider a media and message training session.

2. Shift live events to digital events

First, it was Mobile World Congress in Spain. Next was Google I/O in California. Then it was Austin’s South by Southwest. These cancellations, and presumably many more to come, require us to rethink our event calendars for at least the first half of 2020 and pivot quickly to digital options. If an event you were planning has been cancelled, consider these alternatives:

Instead of a panel, lead a webinar or podcast with the same speakers and presentation content. Invite as many of the customers, prospects, and media you were hoping or expecting to attend, and then extend that list to those who weren’t attending.

If you were making a major in-person announcement or hosting your own branded event, consider creating a digital experience to share the top-line news and stakeholder-specific content. Promote the experience to attendees and unveil your news – just like you would have on stage. Some vendors to consider for this type of digital execution include On24, Broadnet’s Access Live, and BrightTALK, who is hosting a webcast this week on the best ways to create a successful virtual event at scale – in 24 hours if necessary.

Also, consider the speaking engagement programs you’ve put in place for your thought leaders – how do those need to change this year in light of fewer conferences taking place? Grab a video snippet of your executives to go along with any submissions you’ll be making, as it’s likely that show coordinators will be considering their video presentation abilities as much as the content.

3. Prioritize internal communications

Between the rumors and constant coverage of the coronavirus, employees want answers and need calm, consistent, and transparent leadership. Work with your leadership and HR teams to map out a strategic communication plan. Include helpful resources like:

  • Tips for staying healthy
  • Plans and conditions for remote working
  • Health insurance benefits, and what to do if you think you might have been exposed to the virus
  • Revisions to travel or other policies
  • Plans for school closures or community lockdowns
  • Updates on any other office locales and colleagues in other affected areas

This information should be shared regularly via multiple internal channels and assessed daily. This is not a one-and-done communication scenario.

When sharing information internally, don’t forget to invite feedback and questions. You want to create a safe place for dialogue and support. Crisis comms author and expert Bill Coletti advises businesses today to be transparent about decision-making, telling your employees what you’re doing – and why.

4. Reset your media strategy

The media’s attention across consumer, business, and even trade publications is occupied by coronavirus, economic, and political storylines. By extension, your target audience’s attention is consumed by coronavirus, economic, and political storylines. This does not mean we should halt all business as usual, but it does mean we should reset our expectations for media coverage or move large announcements to later in the year when they can make more of an impact.

For companies that have insight or angles around the virus, tread carefully. Intent matters, and you don’t want to come off as though you are trying to benefit from this crisis. If your true intention is to help, and your product, service, or expertise can genuinely assist people right now, do not hesitate to get the word out – but do so with a goal of education, not commercial gains. During a crisis, journalists are seeking factual, educational information, not promotional content. Focus on how you can provide value to their readers – help them better understand the situation and its impact, make smarter decisions, or navigate troubling or uncertain times.

And remember – if you’re not communicating directly about the crisis, still ensure that your spokespeople are prepared to speak to it. Even if sharing unrelated news, you’ll likely get questions about coronavirus.  Equip your spokespeople with background and speaking points on the situation.

5. Reconsider your paid strategy

During this health crisis, consider if right now is the best time to spend advertising dollars. Your target audience is likely distracted, uncertain, and mentally preoccupied with other personal matters. To that end, it’s in your best interest to adjust ad spend and shift messages to be helpful and educational instead of overly promotional, or pause ads entirely until the crisis has died down.

Moving forward, keep your ear to the ground and be prepared to ramp back up when the situation has normalized. By planning ahead, your team will be ready to regain momentum once you turn campaigns back on.

The Heart of the Matter

As always, think of your key stakeholders first, and what they care about right now. Serve them as best you can by providing useful information through digital channels – they’ll appreciate the pivot. And finally, look internally to help settle the nerves of employees and guide them through this experience with their best interest as your North Star.