Opinion: A PR playbook for avoiding opportunism in the COVID-19 crisis
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 outbreak has severely impacted the daily operations of most businesses, in too many harmful ways. Ad agencies, production companies and their brand clients have had challenging hurdles to face during these unprecedented times. Understandably, these companies want to address uncertainties within their clients, teams, followers and corporate peers, either by reassuring the continuity of their normal operations (albeit remote), or by denoting other short-term and long-term changes.
From a public relations standpoint, there is a right and decidedly wrong way to broach a crisis. As email recipients everywhere have frayed nerves due to their own personal concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, messages, however well-intended, can be construed as seizing on a disaster for personal gain, which can have long-term brand image repercussions beyond the lifespan of a virus. You don’t want your company to be remembered as the first one to send a sales newsletter pitching their uninterrupted services or “fun” virtual workflow after everyone was sent home—fearing for the health of their families and the potential loss of their jobs.
In a time where the consistency and future of everyone’s professional and personal lives are being interrupted by the hour, it is essential that the tone and content of all outward-facing messaging be as sensitive as ever.
Here is a rundown of helpful messaging, as well as verbiage you definitely want to avoid, during this difficult time:
Don't pretend things are still okay—or even normal. You don’t know what every individual client or team member is going through, and forced optimism without pragmatism can read as insensitive at best. Keep pleasantries earnest, without ignoring the current state of the world. A “business as usual” message can seem tone deaf.
Don't promote the superiority of your remote tools. We know you want to reassure your clients that you can perform day-to-day work from home, but heavily upselling now is insensitive. Just state the facts. Focus on being solutions-oriented, not opportunistic.
Don't play expert. If your clients have any questions pertaining to the virus or economic fallout, guide them to CDC updates and pertinent health organizations. Don’t pretend to be an expert on COVID-19 or play doctor; it’s dangerous as much as it is callous.
Do prioritize the recipients’ well-being. Prioritize the well-being of humans—your own teams, the clients you interface with, etc.—before concerns about your business gains or losses. Continue to lead your messaging with wishing others well in this difficult time. When communicating with clients and employees, providing insight from a standpoint of comradery has proven beneficial. We are all going through this together and rallying to tackle a shared challenge is a powerful tool in uncertain times.
Do keep your messaging factual. When keeping your clients informed of your adjusted workflows, avoid language that can be construed as one-upmanship, or salesy. Can you perform all your functions remotely? If not, which ones? What are your new hours? These are questions your clients actually need to have answered. Brands that appear opportunistic, whether intentional or not, are met with swift backlash.
Do consider your social media feed. Think about pausing pre-scheduled social media posts, reviewing them to make sure the tone and content is appropriate to share in the light of current circumstances, such as quarantine and social distancing. Before publishing any verbiage, consider your messaging through the lens of "is this appropriate at this point in time?"
Do your part. Consider how you can provide value or assistance to the community during this time of shared challenges. Moments of positivity and hope in times of crisis will go a long way toward engendering long-term positive brand awareness for your company. Simply creating a short piece of content that fosters community at a time of required distance will bring you closer to your clients.
The COVID-19 pandemic will hopefully end as quickly as possible, but decisions your company makes now will follow your brand beyond the life of the crisis. Approaching your own teams, clients and audiences thoughtfully—not as monoliths, but as individual people with their own fears and trials to face—will set the course for sensitive and thoughtful communication. As the situation unfolds and we continue to distance ourselves form one another physically, it’s a great time to double down on making sure that your communications are more human than ever.