Marketing during a crisis: Public Communications Inc. shares tips to help startups survive — and thrive — during COVID-19
How do you get media attention in a world with a 24/7 COVID-19 news cycle? If you had a launch or press release planned, should you continue as normal?
At the the latest webinar in our member-exclusive Navigating COVID-19 series, MATTER partner Public Communications Inc. (PCI) shared their answers to these questions and more. PCI is a full service public relations and integrated marketing and communications firm with over 40 years of experience working with healthcare companies and media. In this webinar, they used what they’ve heard from both clients and local and national media to guide startups through the steps they need to take to market themselves effectively and authentically.
The webinar was led by Mary Erangey, Casey Blickenstaff and Alyssa Paldo. Read on for their insights. Responses have been edited slightly for length and clarity.
1. How can companies determine whether to pause or pivot their communications?
Mary: Make sure you stay aligned with company values.
“Your communications need to remain consistent with your brand values — and if you don’t have your brand values identified, we would advocate that you figure those out now. You need to ensure that there is no dissonance between your values and who you say you are and what you are communicating in the marketplace. That will erode trust and can do lasting damage to your online reputation.”
“You need to ensure that there is no dissonance between your values and who you say you are and what you are communicating in the marketplace. That will erode trust and can do lasting damage to your online reputation.”
Alyssa: Make sure you remain aligned with what is happening in the world around you.
“Ask yourself these questions: Will moving ahead with your existing communications make you sound tone deaf? Will your communications complement or conflict with what is happening in the world?
“Consider pausing or pivoting communications that would seem at odds with what is going on in the world around you and what people are talking about. A good example is a large organization we work with: April is Donate Life Month which is a critically important awareness month for that client. We had a whole campaign in place for that client — but then COVID-19 happened. We had to really take a look at our plans and decide if moving forward with [those plans] as they were would make us look tone deaf. We looked for a way to shift that would accomplish the goal of raising awareness and getting people to understand the importance of organ and tissue donation in the context of COVID-19. We ended up shifting our strategy to tell a story around how there are still miracles happening in the midst of all this craziness…Organ and tissue transplants are still occuring and it’s something that’s providing hope for workers in the hospital. Doing that helped us tell their story but in a way that is more aligned with what’s going on in the world right now versus what we had planned before.”
2. How can companies message in the midst of this level of uncertainty?
“We cannot overstate the importance of listening carefully and systematically. Think about what your communications infrastructures are. We as a communications agency and our healthcare sector specific team have built a number of protocols to make sure that we are able to stay abreast of news that is coming at us at a pace and volume that is impossible for any one person to keep up with.
“There are a number of things that we would suggest that you consider for your own teams: First, have some news sources that you rely on for their daily feeds and go back to those constantly. Second, set up your Google Alerts and consider having an internal team structure where there are point people to monitor specific issues and have a system for how they share those with your staff as a whole.”
Alyssa: Really understand what matters to your audience.
“Establish and maintain trust by being open about the things that you know and also the things that you don’t know, what you can deliver and you can’t, and be honest about your challenges.
“A good example here is a client who was trying to establish their voice in COVID-19 but who recognized that their audience is a population who is more at risk…They knew they wanted to say something but didn’t want to give more risk than benefit with their information. Ultimately they decided to take a purely reactive approach to the media because they didn’t want to create more uncertainty for their population that is scared and vulnerable. Often, deciding when to step back and how to do so is just as important as a proactive response.”
Casey: Communications should always start with internal audiences.
“Employees should be communicated to first and foremost before communicating with outside audiences such as the media. Messages for outside audiences should be outlined on a platform for your internal team. Remember to always be consistent, answer questions that employees have and ask employees for their input — and use it.”
3. How can companies navigate media outreach during this current 24/7 COVID-19 news cycle?
Mary: Get specific.
“We are talking with national, local and international journalists every day and we hear over and over again that they want specific examples: specific stories, specific data and specific people to talk with. They don’t want general information about what a company is doing…You may have a great story to tell but your opportunity to position that for attention from the media is to get as specific as possible.
“You may have a great story to tell but your opportunity to position that for attention from the media is to get as specific as possible.”
“That is a baseline for everything going on right now.”
Alyssa: Stay nimble.
“Everything is rapidly evolving — you need to stop and pause to keep up with it. Stay apprised with what is being covered today and get ahead of what will be covered tomorrow, next week or even next month and be ready to pivot.
“A good example of this is in our conversations with the media for outreach for healthcare clients… and how our outreach has evolved. We’ve been very closely monitoring the news cycle and how it’s shifting. First, the attention was on triage, screening and getting people tested, then it moved to equipment shortages and the need for PPE, then to patient monitoring and then to mental health… We’re even hearing about the shift from just the need for solutions for healthcare employees to the need for solutions for other employees and protecting the safety of all employees as we ultimately shift out of these stay at home orders. This has all shifted so rapidly and that will only continue.”
Casey: Stay tuned in and see where you fit in.
“It’s a safe bet that your audiences, like you, are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of 24/7 information coming at them. So don’t just try to scream louder to be heard.
“It’s a safe bet that your audiences, like you, are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of 24/7 information coming at them. So don’t just try to scream louder to be heard.”
“Take the time to identify where you really fit in to deliver valuable insight, perspective and information. Really be mindful of what you truly have to contribute that’s valuable…Really stay tuned with what reporters want to find what areas you can really own, don’t just try to fit into any or all of them.”
4. Where does everyone go from here?
Mary: Take a progressive position.
“The Harvard Business Journal wrote a piece about how the companies that thrive in coming through these [crisis periods] don’t take a defensive position, they take a progressive position. Look at this to really identify where you should shift and if you should take another lane moving forward.
“I think it is nearly certain that there will be lasting changes to the overall healthcare system and reimbursement and staffing models. The increasing shift to home based care, telemedicine and the increasing reliance on remote screening — all of those things are going to have huge implications for you and your company. If you determine that you don’t want or need to be particularly engaged in external communications, this is a perfect point in time for you to gather your advisors and your brain trust and really think strategically about where this positions you and your company for the future.
“If you determine that you don’t want or need to be particularly engaged in external communications, this is a perfect point in time for you to gather your advisors and your brain trust and really think strategically about where this positions you and your company for the future.”
“It can be very useful to have an external sounding board to help you think about where you fit in in this changing landscape.”
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