Now what? A communications playbook for COVID-19 and beyond

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Vector megaphone in CMYK style.In disorienting change and economic turmoil, many people feel as if they’ve been tossed about by a capricious and often violent storm. While operational and budget decisions rightly take precedence in a crisis like this – you have to keep the lights on – companies may further expose themselves to the chaos if they don’t properly prioritize their communications strategies.

Communications – everything from blog and Facebook posts to media interviews to employee communications – allow a brand to proactively manage its reputation. And since reputation can’t be an afterthought, communications efforts shouldn’t be either – especially during a time of uncertainty and change.

Here at Sikich Public Relations, we’ve worked with both business-to-consumer and business-to-business brands throughout this pandemic to help them effectively communicate with their stakeholders and tell their stories and showcase expertise in respected media outlets.

Here are four ways brands can deploy communications strategies that will carry them through the continued lockdowns and into the staggered reopening of the country. The brands that invest in, and focus on, their communications strategies will stay closer to their customers, maintain mindshare and be better positioned to take advantage of the eventual economic rebound.

1. Use “earned media” to fill the sales gap

Sales reps are grounded, for the most part. In-person business development activities, such as trade shows and networking events, are on hold. And aggressive digital sales promotion may come across as tone-deaf during a pandemic. Still, brands must find ways to showcase their products and expertise. Earned media can answer that call.

Securing the implied endorsement from a trusted, credible third-party (such as a journalist at a respected trade, business or consumer publication) can raise awareness of a brand and improve its reputation. And top news websites have seen a significant uptick in traffic. So, at a time when sales pitches will likely fall flat, brands should seek to communicate to customers and prospects through the press. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Securing quality coverage in trusted media requires strategy and skill.

First, seek to be helpful and informative. No reporter wants to hear a sales pitch. However, if a company has useful and compelling advice – whether it’s about how to navigate the Paycheck Protection Program, launch a new product or how to entertain elementary school-age kids after e-learning ends and summer camps fail to reopen – it’s likely a reporter will want to hear it, too. Offering to serve as an expert resource is a great way to build relationships with reporters that can result in positive media coverage for a brand. But a spokesperson must deliver when he has the chance to speak with a reporter. That means preparing thoroughly, practicing repeatedly and treating reporters the same way he would treat his most valuable customers and prospects.

Next, be sure to keep the news coming. It’s tempting to hold news announcements until things get “back to normal.” But we could be operating under the cloud of COVID-19 for a long time. So, while it may be a good idea to put big product launches on hold until reporters and buyers will pay attention, companies should continue to announce corporate news – new hires and company awards, for example – if they have it. These announcements can position a company as growing and innovative, even in tough times.

2. Customize your communications

Though some states are beginning to ease pandemic-related restrictions, brands must continue to exercise caution in their communications. Mass sales emails to prospects remain a bad idea, even after we’ve successfully “flattened the curve.” But that doesn’t mean a company must go dark. In place of overtly promotional marketing efforts, a company can engage with customers in a spirit of transparency and information-sharing, as opposed to service or product promotion. Whether it’s a phone call or a live virtual event, staying in front of customers with relevant information that acknowledges and addresses their most pressing challenges can entrench a company as a valuable and trusted resource.

As a company adopts a more custom approach to customer communications, it should do the same on the media relations front. The staggered, state-by-state approach to the country’s “reopening” will create different situations from market to market. Seeking to address the evolving and unique conditions in different areas of the country presents a potential brand-building opportunity for proactive companies – if they can deliver locally relevant information. Capitalizing on this opportunity requires effort. A company’s communications strategists must do their homework and seek to understand different reporters’ needs and areas of interest. Subject-matter experts and company spokespeople should educate themselves so they can comment on the realities on the ground in various markets.

Overall, a commitment to customized customer communications and media relations efforts can help brands stay relevant and engaging in an uncertain time.

3. Keep conversation lines open and active with social media

Don’t let a societal lockdown also close the critical line of communication that social media provides. Social media remains a preferred method for immediate, direct conversations between your company and your customers and prospects. In fact, people are spending more time than ever on social media — between 20 and 40 percent more — and this likely includes your target audiences. Custom, thoughtful content will go much farther today than it ever has in the past.

But that means ill-conceived content will also spread more than usual. So, assuming you’ve shelved your pre-pandemic content calendar (as we recommended here), work to create content that aligns with the news and mood of the day and provides helpful information to your key audiences. When considering how to maintain this vital line of communication, think about viewing the social content from your customers’ points-of-view. Does that tweet you’re re-writing have the right tone? Does it educate or entertain or inspire? Are you ensuring your customers know how to support your brand? Will it add value to your audience? Beyond static content, open and honest Q&A sessions hosted on Instagram Stories or Facebook Live can open the door to two-way conversations with your audience.

Slow down, assess the situation and customize your social media communications to what’s happening right now, in a way that engages your customers. This approach will help a brand quickly adjust to shifts in the news cycle and social media conversations.

4. Take advantage of this pause

In the face of the unknown and a possible pause in some promotional activities, we recommend welcoming this opportunity to reflect on where your company has been, where it is now and where you want it to go. Then, you can envision and strategize how your marcom efforts can help you respond, no matter what the post-COVID world looks like.

Once you identify your strengths and weaknesses, adjust your strategy accordingly. Then, rebuild your foundations. You can take this time to create a repository of non-COVID-19-related content — from blogs and white papers to sell sheets and brand collateral — that you can start to share, as COVID eases out of the news cycle. Nurture relationships with industry partners to lay the groundwork for your new world, together.

Devote time to your reputation

Prioritizing communications during this time of challenge and upheaval will help a brand stay close to its customers and prospects, maintain focus on its long-term trajectory and position itself for a brighter post-pandemic future. So, amid the competing priorities of the moment, marshal all marketing communications resources – both internal and external – and commit to proactively managing your brand’s reputation and communications strategy.

Sikich Public Relations helps business-to-consumer and business-to-business organizations raise brand awareness through media relations, social media campaigns, content creation, messaging strategy, crisis management and more. Contact Molly Summa at molly.summa@sikich.com or Kyle Adams at kyle.adams@sikich.com to learn more.

About our authors

Kyle Adams

Kyle Adams

Kyle Adams is an account director in Sikich’s public relations practice. He develops and executes marketing communications, media relations and social media programs to help companies raise brand awareness, promote products and services, and showcase expertise. He specializes in strategically pitching and securing media coverage for clients in business and trade publications; writing bylined articles, white papers, case studies and news releases; and managing social media campaigns.

Molly Summa

Molly Summa

Molly Summa is an account manager in Sikich’s public relations practice. She has 10 years of experience handling public relations efforts for a wide mix of internationally-known brands. At Sikich, Molly manages consumer product clients with a focus on juvenile products and healthcare. She writes an array of client content, leads traditional media and social media efforts, in addition to crisis work and client counsel. She began her career in healthcare and journalism. Molly lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and toddler.

This publication contains general information only and Sikich is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or any other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should you use it as a basis for any decision, action or omission that may affect you or your business. Before making any decision, taking any action or omitting an action that may affect you or your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor. You acknowledge that Sikich shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by you or any person who relies on this publication.

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