Consciously communicating COVID-19

4.1.20 / 5 min read

Paul Wilke is CEO of Upright Position Communications, a San Francisco-based PR firm that specializes in crisis communications, B2B tech PR and IPO communications

It doesn’t feel like it, but we’ve been through this before. Maybe we, collectively, haven’t been through a crisis like COVID-19 before, but there’s a laundry list of outbreaks and disasters that have forced communications professionals to step up, wander off the path of day-to-day operations to communicate through a crisis:

  • SARS
  • 9/11
  • Y2K (don’t snicker, it was a big deal leading up to Dec. 31, 1999)
  • Ebola
  • Mad Cow

And those are just the ones off the top of my head. The only two differences between the above catastrophes and COVID-19 is that COVID-19 is happening now and its impact is global. It’s important to realize that controlled crisis communications are scalable.

Major disease outbreaks (like the one we’re living through now) can unsettle employees, customers and consumers with the various ways they interact with your business. It’s our role as communicators and partners to address both falsities and realities, recognizing that the huge influx of information about COVID-19 and its impact on the community in the news, social media and in email can lead to confused consumers.

It’s the latter, the easy-to-deploy – but seemingly hard to get right – email blast that is really making for an interesting contrast between good communications and bad communicating. About two weeks ago, we started seeing emails from companies touting their preparedness for COVID-19, when in reality, no one’s prepared. In reality, the best advice to some of the companies sending email blasts with useless information is to not send anything at all.

There’s a better way for companies to be seen as customer-focused, without coming across as opportunistic.

Here are some simple rules to adhere to to ensure you’re effectively communicating to your core audiences. Apply them to email blasts as well as how you interact with media, social media updates and the information you put on your website:

  1. Remember your audience. Are you reaching out to clients, employees, consumers, reporters? Who you’re reaching out to directly dictates the tone and content of what you say. Most importantly: Remember they’re human.
  2. It’s not about you. Remember when I said to remember that your audience is human? Also remember that it isn’t always about you. Your audiences have lives outside of your product or service. This week they’re dealing with ailing parents, childcare, their own businesses hanging in the balance. Take these things into consideration when connecting with them. They want to know you empathize and are there for them, when they need you.
  3. Avoid writing hyperbole and stick to what is known. In short: Be honest. None of us know whether we’ll be dealing with this for three weeks or three months, so communicate the known knowns that you know.
  4. Don’t tell them everything. Whether it’s one email blast or one blog post, tell them the one thing you absolutely want to tell them (we’re open, we have someone on staff who’s contracted the coronavirus, we’re taking the following steps to ensure your safety, etc.). Make your communications count and don’t feel like you need to tell them about the history of coronavirus and how to wash your hands (for that, send people here).
  5. Use effective channels to reach your core constituency. You know your audience better than anyone. Communicate through the channel(s) that resonate with them. If email is the most effective way, don’t choose this week to test out TikTok.
  6. Don’t sugarcoat. People respect candor and honesty. These same people are hearing a lot of hearsay and untruths – don’t add to that list.
  7. Market the opportunity (if you have one, and are tasteful about it). You don’t ever want to be seen as taking an advantage of a situation (we’re looking at you, hand sanitizer hoarder/resellers!), but if you have a novel way to make the best of a bad situation, promote it. Are you offering curbside demos of your platform? Are you making it easier for your customers to pick up their goods in a way that’s new and useful to them? Are you offering a ‘rainy day’ discount? Then by all means, promote it! Your clients and customers will appreciate the extra mile you’re going.
  8. The basics still matter. Planning, taking responsibility, proactivity and truth are all things to take into consideration with any external or internal communication you issue.
  9. People have short and inaccurate memories. Perception outplays reality. As much as I hate the term fake news, the reality is it isn’t new, nor is it always a devious deep state plot. Misinformation has a funny way of spreading organically. There’s a great quote, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Here’s the best part about that quote: It’s often attributed to Mark Twain saying it in 1919, but he was dead by then, so even a quote about facts is wrong!
  10. Embrace a sense of community. For once, “We’re all in this together” isn’t a cliché, and in the era of social distancing, we’re all looking for ways to stay connected. Everyone’s bracing for bad news, so if there are opportunities to be empathetic and to bring your core audiences into your inner circle, people will embrace it.

Finally, just as we’ve been here before, we’ll be here again…disasters are temporary, and this will pass. By thinking strategically, honestly and factually, your audiences will respect you and stick with you after this has passed.

It is difficult to know how to manage a PR crisis. But once a scandal breaks, it has a life of its own. Check out our 8 Tips on how to manage a PR Crisis effectively here.