A look at communications ethics in times of crisis

by | Mar 18, 2021 | Analysis, Covid-19, Public Relations

“Coronavirus” has quickly become the most frequently googled term by a long shot as news outlets are dripping in information regarding the spread of COVID-19. The number of confirmed cases worldwide passed three million, with hundreds of thousands more looming in the future.

This new reality has fostered a dynamic shift in the media landscape. As the public grapples with digesting the consistent influx of information, brands and organizations are swimming blindly, attempting to navigate the do’s and don’ts of this sensitive time while leaning on their public relations teams. In times of uncertainty, it is exceedingly important to remain true to our ethics.

The role of the communications professional

As public relations professionals, we are often the megaphone for businesses. Whether determining a campaign strategy or simply providing advice for a LinkedIn post, we act as a much-needed filter for all outbound communications for an organization. During a crisis, our role is elevated. It is times like these where executives and clients will turn to us to provide guidance, strategy, and messaging assistance.

In a crisis, the stakes are also higher. A mistake in a message during a pivotal and sensitive time in history can result in an unwanted reputation that bleeds into the future. When a client has an idea regarding how to approach coronavirus, it is our job to make sure that the information is both applicable and accurate. COVID-19 has affected every sector of business, meaning that every organization is likely to craft some degree of messaging around the topic.

A look at communications ethics in times of crisis

While at times your organization will have important and valuable information to add to the conversation, sometimes you will need to advise your clients that not commenting is actually the most strategic course of action.

Add value when possible

It is easy for an organization’s communications to appear to be “ambulance chasing” when responding to a widely covered media subject, resulting in cringe-worthy pitches reaching for a timely hook. Coronavirus in particular, is a topic that requires extensive sensitivity due to the millions of lives affected. It is crucial that any commentary on the subject adds value to the conversation, as opposed to simply increasing the noise. PRSAstates that “advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest.”

In order to maintain the highest level of integrity, all public statements should be vetted through a few important questions: “Will this information help people?,” “Is my organization benefiting more from this story than the public?,” and “What value have I contributed through this message?” The answers to these questions should undoubtedly support the ethical contribution of a story if it is to be pushed to publication. 

Focus on what’s important

A global pandemic is deeply upsetting, social distancing is difficult, having close relationships with at-risk individuals is stressful, and traversing these feelings while continuing business-as-usual can feel close to impossible. The role we play in providing communications that promote accuracy, good decision making and increased public health are crucial to public well-being.

Being in touch with the reality of the situation, however unsettling, is the best way to make sure that the information you push out into the world is that which will make a positive impact. It is imperative that we stay in touch with the thoughts and feelings of the public as a whole and use our professional expertise to deliver the information the world needs. Pitch your stories, share new insights, contribute thought leadership and promote beneficial products, but make sure that these narratives uphold PRSA’s “professional values that are vital to the integrity of the profession as a whole.”

This article originally appeared on the Merritt Group blog; reprinted with permission.

Molly McCabe
Molly McCabe is a PR Account Coordinator at Merritt Group.


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