Public relations in a COVID-19 world—how to best serve clients

by | Mar 24, 2020 | Analysis, Covid-19, Public Relations

These are certainly strange days, and public relations professionals must adapt along with just about every profession right now. The function of getting out client messages is simultaneously of great importance and minimal concern, depending on the nature of the client’s business and the message itself. With many companies suspending operations, it’s important to consider whether your efforts are providing any bottom-line benefit; if not, there’s little point in doing business-as-usual.

It goes without saying that for the foreseeable future, pitching anything not directly related to the Coronavirus is an exercise in futility, at best, and a potential cauldron of derision at worst. Most media outlets are singularly focused on covering the virus and its impact on society and the economy, and won’t look favorably at any story deemed “frivolous,” despite its merits at any other time. Sending such pitches may even hit your credibility and strain or sever media relationships, as it gives journalists the impression you are tone deaf or wasting their time.

The corollary to that is if the information is important, provides a legitimate public benefit or includes expert advice on navigating this new normal, sending the pitch might be warranted. But make sure it passes the smell test. You want to ensure your pitch doesn’t come off as self-serving or otherwise exploitative; this isn’t the time for typical newsjacking. And when in doubt, don’t send it out.

How can agencies serve clients?

Agencies can provide value to clients in other ways, however, especially as sectors of commerce shut down, and businesses or organizations limit hours, cancel events or initiate visitor and crowd control policies, either by choice or government decree. Assisting the client with getting the word out, through earned media, social media, and e-mail blasts can be of great benefit. Most companies have never had to deal with anything like COVID-19 before, and could likely benefit from a well-worded letter of explanation to their publics that a communications professional can provide. Every business has its own “voice,” its own rationale for making a difficult but necessary decision, so such letters shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.

When events get cancelled, companies may also face the prospect of doling out massive refunds or other fallout that may need mitigating, and a PR pro can assist here too. Helping them satisfy customers by asking for patience and understanding, and pointing out that “we’re all in this together and are working to minimize disruptions” can go a long way toward minimizing reputational damage. Yes, everyone will understand the “why” of the situation, but walking them through the “how” can help them feel like their interests remain a priority.

How can agencies respond?

What can professionals and agencies do to preserve or even strengthen client relationships? One client, a flight school, has suspended operations until further notice. Since our efforts are mostly contingent on encouraging reporters to come out and experience flying, and there’s no flying to be had, I’ve chosen to suspend our contract for at least one month, then add it to the back end after he’s back up and running. His income has stopped, so how can we in good conscience charge him a fee when there’s not much we can do?

In the case of other clients, now is the time to conduct media research, develop or hone future pitch letters, get a head-start on that thought-leadership article, brainstorm some corporate social responsibility initiatives for the year, or steep yourself in learning their business. Those things will all pay off when media outreach and other traditional activities resume.

We’re in the same state of uncertainty as our clients, and the public at large. Trying times demand new ways of operating. By utilizing our skills and the good sense gleaned from years of experience, we can navigate this crisis, and prove our worth as trusted advisers.

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Gary Frisch
Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J.

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