By Jennifer Tolkachev

Public relations (PR) and communications pros constantly preach about crisis communication strategies, hoping clients will be ready to act when the unexpected happens. In the past, many companies haven’t had to execute those plans. 

Now they have.

Beyond the devastating physical toll of COVID-19, the virus has crashed the economy, shut down businesses, and left millions barricaded in their homes. 

There’s no magic formula that PR and communications pros can use to respond to the crisis we’re living through. However, we can learn a few lessons from the PR response so far, and there are steps companies can take to navigate this crisis successfully.

What Can PR Pros Learn from the Initial Shock of the Pandemic?

In one fell swoop, COVID-19 grabbed a hold of the planet and shook it. Although the shock may be wearing off now, there are clear steps that savvy PR pros took during the virus’s initial hit:

1. They paused promotions. 

The second a crisis strikes, communications pros should hit the pause button on self-serving promotions. Otherwise, your company could end up looking callous and tone-deaf. Just look at the backlash from Corona’s recent “Coming Ashore Soon” ad campaign. If you want to avoid reputational damage, you should stop product launches, wait on making previously planned corporate announcements, and re-examine new campaign launches whenever crisis strikes. 

2. They stopped and examined the problem.

While your team is sitting in an external communications freeze, it’s important to recognize the tragedy and identify everyone it’s affecting. Without taking a moment to examine the crisis’ full extent, your company risks offending or scaring off those customers who have been hit the hardest.

3. They took time to plan.

During a crisis, it’s easy to let panic take over. You can fight back by taking a deep breath, gathering your team, and executing your crisis communications strategy. Ask the team and yourself, “What should we do?” and “How should we respond?”

Combine inbound marketing and PR to increase visibility, credibility, brand  recognition, and the potential to reach your target audience.

PR Lessons from COVID-19’s Early Consequences

A few weeks after COVID-19 bared its teeth, most organizations were still trying to stabilize and hold on to their reputations, but our ongoing crisis isn’t about saving your company’s reputation—it’s about saving people. Smart PR pros caught on to the need to help people right away. 

When the next crisis hits, you can connect with the public by searching for ways to help. Ask yourself:

  • What do people need?
  • What can we do to help? 
  • How can our expertise be used in ways that can do good?

How to Approach PR as Business Picks Up

Businesses are slowly reopening and starting to inch forward. But people are scared, many are still sick, and everyone is coping with loss of life and livelihood on some level. At this stage, your PR superpower must be sensitivity.

Before you pitch stories or deliver new content, triple-check and make sure your messages are appropriate. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What does my audience want to hear about right now?
  • What questions are people asking about my industry?
  • What are the common threads in the media that line up with my messages?

Use these questions as guides as you build quality content to connect with your audience.

Picking Up the Pieces and Planning for the Future

With so much turmoil swirling every day, it’s hard to imagine a time when the COVID-19 crisis will be over. But this too shall pass. The key question for PR pros and marketers is: “What will things look like when this is over?” 

You can’t predict the future, but you can plan for it. As you move plans forward, take a minute to map out three separate PR strategies:

  • Best scenario
  • Moderate scenario
  • Worst scenario

Above all else, stay optimistic. Things may seem bleak now, but the most successful companies will find silver linings and capitalize on new opportunities. Focus on any positives you can identify, stay alert to how things are changing for the better, and use market research to drive your PR plans.

Is Your PR Plan Feeding a Sound Inbound Strategy?

A solid communications strategy is more important now than ever as businesses grapple with the effects of COVID-19, prepare for states to reopen, and plan for the uncertainty of the new normal. 

In all the chaos, one thing is for sure: Well-established, trusted brands will fare the best. That’s why increasing thought leadership, building trust, and executing a long-term inbound marketing plan is crucial. 

Wondering how your inbound marketing plan stacks up? Take our inbound marketing assessment and see if your PR plan is feeding into a long-term inbound strategy.

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Jennifer Tolkachev

About the author

Jennifer Tolkachev heads the PR department at SmartBug Media. She has nearly 25 years of experience in public relations, media relations, corporate communications, and project management, gaining strategic expertise from working for agencies, in-house, and running her own consulting business. Former clients have included a variety of B2B companies as well as tech giants, global non-profits, celebrities, and a United States Senator. Read more articles by Jennifer Tolkachev.

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