That, in a nutshell, seems to be the dilemma of each and every PR professional these days, unless of course, you work in the health sector or related services.
For the rest of us, the first reaction to the COVID-19 crisis was probably to say nothing. To cut down on your usual communication felt necessary because either it wasn’t possible anymore with events for example cancelled, or it somehow no longer seemed appropriate to talk.
But as any respectable PR professional knows: a crisis, any crisis, is not the time to be quiet. It is a time to be proactive, to be seen, to be heard.
Forget what you ever learned about crisis management
I have dealt with a lot of different crises in my motorsport career, some were literally a matter of life and death. But they all had one thing in common: there was a lot of talking involved. In any crisis, not talking is usually perceived as a sign of weakness or worse, admission of guilt.
You can read about the different stages of crisis communication in this earlier blog post of mine: Motorsports PR: Five steps to announce bad news in a good way
The difference with COVID-19 is that every company around the globe has to deal with the repercussions of the same crisis, at the same time. That is unchartered waters for all of us and usual procedures no longer apply.
Adapt your communication
So how can your company or client continue to communicate? With the current disaster humanity is facing, can you really pretend it is business as usual? Of course, you can’t. Your best alternative is to do what you should always do in public relations – you adapt. And talk about it. Staying silent is not an option.
Examples from the world of motorsport and beyond
One possibility is to create an alternative product. In motorsports, INDYCAR is a good example. The series had to postpone or cancel all races until early June for now. So, to fill the void for fans and sponsors, they have created a virtual iRacing series. Their usual TV broadcaster in the US, NBCSN, shows the races live every Saturday, even featuring the real live presenters! The 30+ professional INDYCAR drivers, with guest stars from other series, including F1’s Lando Norris, have been fighting virtually for the last few weeks like it were the real thing. Judging from the fans’ reactions and the implication of partners and sponsors, it does come close.
Formula 1 has also put together an e-sport series but where they are really shining is in another area: All UK-based F1 teams have joined forces (which hasn’t happened very often) to develop and produce much-needed equipment for the health services. Thus, the teams are not only fulfilling a real demand and purpose; it also showcases the real strength of F1: technology and engineering at its finest.
The list of examples is endless, also outside of the sport. Restaurants that are temporarily closed are cooking for health workers, and Michelin starred restaurants have started a take-away service. Hairdressers have turned to Youtube to show you how to cut your hair, musicians give free concerts via their social media channels.
In any situation, there is something to talk about, even when at first it seems that there isn’t.
There is just one rule: Be authentic. Don’t pull a PR stunt for the sake of it. Whatever you are doing in these unprecedented times needs to come from the heart. It should also be coherent with your activity and the ongoing crisis.
The future is bright…
A personal note to finish: As a PR professional (and a person) I am learning so many new things every day now. I am developing skills I never knew I had or needed. I am hoping the same is true for you. Whatever you are learning now will come useful for whatever comes next…