3 essential insights for creative PR campaigns during the COVID crisis

by | May 4, 2020 | Analysis, Covid-19, Public Relations

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has completely turned how we do business upside down. Events are being canceled all over the globe, workers are forced to isolate themselves from colleagues who they would normally work with in-person, and working remotely from home has become the new normal. As a result, brands are struggling to communicate during the crisis and creative public relations teams are struggling to adapt to the current situation.

These are difficult times for the advertising industry, and many major brands have run coronavirus-themed advertisements attempting to support social distancing. A prime example is a Coca-Cola advertisement in Times Square showing the letters extended between one another to indicate social distancing.

However, many of these ads have also been slammed as being too opportunistic. As an example, a Brazilian McDonald’s advertisement showing its golden arches separated apart generated even more backlash, to the point that the company was forced to shut the ad down.

Yet despite this massive shift, it could actually be prime time for creative PR teams to completely change their way of thinking and creating for their clients. In this article, we’ll share ways that PR teams can properly run campaigns and use their creativity for brands through this unsettling time.

Cancel all non-essential press releases and product launches

Press releases often serve as the heart of any public relations strategy. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the right time is not now to make your latest announcement so long as the announcement concerns something that can wait.

That’s because consumer behavior has changed considerably during the pandemic and are more apt to focus on the situation at hand rather than your company’s news. For this reason, don’t have the brands you’re working with release any non-essential press releases until things have calmed down. The same goes for new product releases.

If you do release a press release or a new product, it needs to be ‘essential,’ meaning it should not be piggybacking onto the crisis. Make sure that the release of the announcement or product won’t be perceived as opportunistic, so your brand can protect its reputation and avoid embarrassment like McDonald’s experienced.

A whopping 94 percent of consumers will avoid buying from businesses that have negative reviews, and anything viewed as taking advantage of the coronavirus situation rather than trying to help solve the problem is very likely to be viewed negatively. Speaking of which…

Keep your message simple and human-centered

It’s already important for a brand to keep its messages simple, but this has become even more important during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. This is especially true if your messages are going to concern any social responsibilities, such as quarantining or social distancing.

You see, there’s nothing wrong with creating coronavirus-related messages. You just have to make sure that you do so in a way with a human-centric tone. The major reason why the McDonald’s’ separated golden arches were so poorly received, is because many believed that McDonald’s was pursuing awards and attention rather than actually trying to make a meaningful difference.

In other words, the McDonald’s ad was not so much a marketing failure as much as it was a public relations failure. The actual advertisement of promoting social distancing was fine, but it’s the fact that McDonald’s as a company failed to truly communicate to the general public that it cared about its workers or employees (such as offering sick leave or other important benefits) or the situation as a whole that made people upset.

The solution is to help the brands you’re working with craft coronavirus-related messages that are more human-centered. One example is how car manufacturers, such as Ford and Hyundai, have been offering payment relief for their new vehicles (including for owners who find themselves out of a job as a result of the outbreak) and have also been doing a decent job of communicating to the public that they actually care about the individual consumer.

People are likely to reward brands that share their values, and almost everyone shares the value of helping those disadvantaged by the crisis. This is why PR teams need to be crafting messages that communicate how and why their brands can help those in need. Take note that brands that can successfully communicate this are very likely to generate positive word-of-mouth. This is essential when you consider that 78 percent of consumers value buying advice they receive from family and friends over all else.

Take advantage of higher social media engagement

COVID-19 has greatly impacted social media influencers. On one hand, the pandemic has caused influences to reduce rates or in some cases outright pause campaigns. But on the other hand, engagement of sponsored content has increased by over 40 percent.

The increase of sponsored content engagement is likely due to the fact that people are spending more time at home and thus internet usage has increased significantly. This also presents a major opportunity for brands. Social media usage specifically has increased highly, with Facebook witnessing a 70 percent increasein the usage of its apps for March and Snapchat a 47 percent increase.

While there have been perfectly valid concerns about how social media sites such as Facebook may be restricting free speech in the name of combating misinformation or even becoming an outright danger to our privacy, there’s no denying that these services provide another new opportunity for PR professionals.

Since social media usage is so much higher now than it was, there’s simply no better chance to take advantage of it to engage directly with consumers for the brands you’re promoting.


PR creative teams and brands will need to work very closely together to develop the proper strategies for communicating with customers and the public during the upcoming months and beyond. If anything, having an effective communication strategy is more important now than it ever has been before.

The good news is that public relations and marketing, in general, are still playing a critical role during the current COVID-19 crisis. Brands have a unique opportunity to address this crisis through their own initiative in the ways that we have covered here today.

Dan Fries
Dan Fries is Founding Partner at Lakeview Capital in Hong Kong.


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