Public Relations

Media Relations in a Global Crisis

By Candice Eng

With circumstances surrounding COVID-19 (the coronavirus) changing almost hourly, always-on news has never felt more valuable – all thanks to round-the-clock work from journalists. As public relations professionals, thinking of the reporter – the human being – on the other side of our pitches is always best practice, but being considerate of our media peers is more important than ever.

As we try to continue to move forward with our work during uncertain times, there are special considerations PR teams should take into account. With any media relations you’re conducting around the coronavirus, keep these three principles in mind.

Be Sensitive

When the world is dealing with a scary situation, businesses must be hyper-vigilant about their communications to avoid missteps or confusion.

Ensure relevancy, accuracy, and self-awareness

Closely review every pitch, news item, executive quote, and press release for any material that could be considered insensitive or to be interfering with a more critical global conversation. Look ahead at the announcements or campaigns you were planning to carry out in the coming months, and evaluate whether they need to be postponed or approached differently in light of current events.

You’ll also want to review everything for accuracy. Stay up-to-date on information from trusted organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. As this situation has developed, we’ve seen a massive influx of information, advice, and real-time updates that spread quickly amongst the public. It’s important to know the facts, so you don’t accidentally amplify or contribute to false narratives.

And make sure that you’re always aware of your company’s role in the broader landscape surrounding this crisis. As a result of the coronavirus, virtually every business is being impacted – and is impacting the lives of others, whether employees, customers, suppliers, manufacturers, or all of the above. As we’re reaching out to reporters, it’s our responsibility to know, as accurately as possible, the extent of that impact and what is being done in response to it.

Remember: journalists are people too

Sensitivity also applies to your media relationships themselves. If you are pitching or sharing news, check in with the reporter first. Before you hit send, take a look at their social media to get the latest on what they’re covering, or even just how they’re doing. On top of that, ask how they’re doing. Acknowledge that things are weird right now for everyone.

Be Helpful

Any media outreach you engage in around a high-magnitude crisis should be with altruistic intent. As this situation unfolds, journalists are seeking factual, educational information, not promotional content. Even the reporters who are typically interested in covering your company are likely being pulled in a different direction.

From a media relations perspective, this isn’t a time to get creative and force an angle or add to the noise unnecessarily. But if your business has relevant expertise, data, or experience to share, focus on how you can provide value to a publication’s readers. If you can help them better understand the situation and its impact, make smarter decisions, or navigate troubling or uncertain times, offer that information up without expectation of return. Oftentimes the help you offer is, at its core, furthering your company’s long-term mission.

Be Prepared

Even if you’re not communicating directly about a crisis, always be prepared to speak to it. A situation like the coronavirus pandemic is going to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, which means even if you’re sharing unrelated news, you’ll still get questions about it.

Remind your spokespeople that they should only answer questions they know the answers to. Just like other media briefings, it’s better to say, “Let me check on that and get back to you,” than to make something up on the spot that may be inaccurate.

Checklist for media communications:

Before any media engagements, equip your spokespeople with background and statements on the crisis.

1) Up-to-date Facts – Prepare the most recent and relevant information on the coronavirus as background for your spokesperson. This could be local, state, and federal updates or guidance from the CDC and WHO.

2) Statement(s) Draft statements that can be shared with the media, posted to the press section of the company website, and pinned to the top of social media feeds. These statements should be reevaluated daily and refreshed as needed. Consider addressing the following:

  • What you’re doing as a company to protect your employees. In the future, you may want to make updates on workforce health. 
  • How you are minimizing the impact on your customers, like measures you’re taking to ensure uptime and maintain your supply chain.
  • Anything new you’re doing in light of the coronavirus that is helpful. For instance, waiving fees, redirecting resources, or donating to a community cause.
  • A commitment to updating your statement as the situation changes.

3) Key Messages Establish what key points need to be communicated, and share those messages with everyone at the company – not just your usual spokespeople. You never know who might be asked questions about this situation, and you’ll want to ensure that everyone is prepared to give an aligned response.

It’s also worth reiterating these three principles throughout the company – be sensitive, be helpful, be prepared. Because at a time like this, all of your internal communications are external communications. Everything communicated to employees will likely be shared externally.

And finally, rethink your media mix and prepare alternative communication plans. During a crisis, your earned media channel isn’t operating as usual, so don’t rely on it in the way you normally might. Consider putting more emphasis on paid, owned, or shared channels – while still being thoughtful about the situation at hand – to deliver information to the people who need it.