Written by Rebecca Dersh
One of the most important roles as a PR professional is the ability to guide your organization or client through a crisis. Yet we’ve found ourselves in new territory. The COVID-19 crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen and now we must navigate this new, uncertain landscape.
More than ever, business leaders are asking public relations professionals for guidance. And one of their main business concerns is around whether their organization should move forward with a previously planned launch. There’s really not one answer here. Each launch should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and what might be considered acceptable in today’s climate, might not be in tomorrow’s.
As we manage potential launches in this time of uncertainty, here’s where communications professionals can begin.
Step 1: Gather decision-makers together and evaluate
When a crisis is unprecedented for a generation, such in the case of COVID-19, we cannot forget that in the midst of that knee-jerk reaction to continue with “business as usual,” the reality is anything but. While key decision makers might be especially eager to launch as planned, it’s important to have an open and honest dialogue about the setbacks and priorities and to then make a decision based on open communication and input.
Conversation starters might include:
- What’s more important – launching immediately or getting as big of a media splash as possible?
- Are you open to rethinking some of your messaging should you decide to launch now?
- Is there any way your primary call to action is or could be impacted by the crisis?
- Are there any scenarios in which we’d launch something and then wouldn’t be able to deliver (i.e. needing to hold off on production due to health regulations)?
- Who is your target audience and how are they being impacted right now?
Secondly, part of evaluating any global crisis situation is thinking about media as a key audience, and considering how media gatekeepers own personal and professional needs may have shifted. Depending on the topic of the product, business or brand launch there may be a natural tie-in to be of service to media’s assigned stories, and there also may be key elements of a launch (events, dinners, samples, showroom visits) that simply cannot go as planned.
To help plan for an updated media strategy, ask yourself questions like:
- What are my media contacts writing about? How has that changed?
- What types of articles are being published in my target outlets?
- Have I seen any launches or related announcements in my industry in the last week?
- What kind of media coverage are my competitors earning?
- Do I think there are still viable media opportunities to talk about the launch?
- Are there any possible negative repercussions of launching in this way, pitching this particular angle, in light of the pandemic?
Now more than ever it’s crucial to read, analyze and ask the right questions to guide your brand on the right path before relying on pre-existing strategy for coverage.
Step 2: Review and revise cross-channel messaging as needed
We’re being tasked with addressing the situation (any company that does not acknowledge t risks appearing insensitive or tone-deaf), while not over-communicating unnecessarily or appearing opportunistic and in bad taste. Brands may also risk a new product launch or service being overtly associated with the crisis, or typecast and given an immediate shelf-life.
“I’m pretty saturated with COVID-19 content right now, but I also clutch my pearls when I get comms that doesn’t address it.” Is that a direct Slack message from one of my coworkers? Yes. Can we assume most people feel this way? Also yes.
The tone, breadth and channels brands use to communicate key company news is especially important in a situation where every stakeholder is affected – if not by the company directly – then by the collective experience of social distancing, shelter at home and media coverage. Missing the mark on a message in the midst of a crisis can become its own news story, and make or break customers perception now and into the future.
While it’s easy to get caught up in or distracted by how brands are responding to the crisis, it’s important to take a step back and focus on what messaging is best for your organization, industry and audience. Not everyone is a health expert, so stay in your lane. What makes sense for a digital health start-up won’t make sense for a clothing brand.
Step 3: Advise and Share Solutions
Now’s the time to do what we do best – communicate and adapt. We need to share our very best advice and understanding of how any brand movement could effect public perception, so please, share how you think postponing a launch will impact results, whether its worth the risk, what outcomes are possible and how to best pivot existing plans to mitigate risk. Weigh the pros and cons transparently and come to each meeting with solutions. If you expect a decline in the ROI of your earned media efforts right now, perhaps you can ramp up owned media content. If the launch needs to be postponed because of a manufacturing delay, consider how you might drum up renewed enthusiasm in those items where inventory is full. However the strategy gets adjusted, set realistic expectations and agree to how you’ll measure success in this new landscape.
Step 4: Prepare for the future
None of us can predict what the next few months – let alone the next week – will hold. Things are changing exponentially fast, so we have to prepare for what future setbacks and situations might come our way. Part of crisis communications is preparing for crises. So while we’re all just taking this day-by-day, it’s also important to identify possible outcomes, setbacks and opportunities, with plenty of room to innovate and revise those plans quickly. This is a time to evaluate approval processes, revisit core values and company mission and stay in dialogue with all key audiences.
And finally – it should go without saying, but at the end of the day, everyone’s health and safety is the top priority above anything else. So please stay safe and remember that while you may feel alone in this, we’re often more capable than we give ourselves credit for and together we will discover the most effective ways to manage this new landscape together.
Rebecca Dersh is the Public Relations Manager at earned media leader Cision. In an effort to support PR and communications professionals during these uncertain times, Cision has compiled these free COVID-19 PR resources to help guide you.