Four Points for Communicators During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As an accredited PR professional with nearly 30 years of communications experience, I thought until recently that I had pretty much seen it all. Having lived in both Texas and Louisiana, I had lived through more than my share of crises—peaking, I would have to say, with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented communications challenges to PR pros, whether you’re working in an independent firm, nonprofit, corporation, or government agency. In late May I wrote the following four points—what I see as four important ways communications professionals should be keeping key audiences engaged during the pandemic.

Coronavirus illustration with molecule
What everyone is talking about, and you should be too.

At the time, the worst of the emergency seemed to be easing. The daily statistics began to look less grim, some governors relaxed restrictions on eating at restaurants, and there was good news on the vaccine horizon. Now, of course, the pandemic has surged back with a vengeance, and people need information and help more than ever. Communicators can and should adapt these ideas for their own situations.

  1. Talk to your team

First, keep your PR/communications team members informed, engaged, and motivated. Managers should take care of their employees individually as much as they can, if only by checking in frequently. It’s important to chat, hold small team meetings, and generally keep in touch using tools like Skype, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams. Or, just exchange email about current projects and workload.

And I don’t see anything wrong with a modest amount of personal communication; “How was your cousin’s virtual graduation?” shows you remembered something important to the employee and that you care. I read a long thread elsewhere on LinkedIn about the current spate of personal greetings and sign-offs, like “Stay safe,” many people are using even in business email. The consensus was that there’s too much of that, and people need to rein it in and be professional. My opinion: You should know your employees well enough to gauge what’s considerate and what is weird.

2. Keep all company employees informed.

Communicate frequently and regularly with employees about what’s going on in the outside world, as well as within the company. This does not apply only to your team. As a communications expert for the company, you should be able to advise senior leadership about all-employee communications. If you work for a very small company, this might actually fall on you. If you’re an independent consultant, it’s all yours.

Let these very important internal stakeholders  know where to get reliable information about the status of the pandemic, how they can help others, and— if applicable—how the company is helping in the community (including how they can help). My organization has a deeply ingrained culture of volunteerism in our communities statewide, and we have found that employees really want it to continue, but it’s hard right now to find relatively safe volunteer opportunities. They are looking to us to help them with that need.

3. Communicate with all other stakeholders.

Communicate as frequently and regularly as is appropriate with your stakeholders, including customers (including members or donors), local and state government, regulators, industry certification boards, etc., and if applicable, with investors, stockholders, or others with a financial stake in the company.

You should already have a good handle on these folks: who they are, what they want from you, and how they like to get their information. In a larger company, you may lead a communications team that reports up a couple of levels before hitting the C-suite, but use your expertise to advise senior management on how to hit the right notes.

Remember that right now customers, partners, suppliers and legislators are busier than ever, possibly with literal business survival. This is not the time for a casual “check-in to see how ya’ doing” kind of call. Instead, find a way to be on their side in a really tough time.

4. Carve out a core

The fourth and last point is really a foundation for the first three. Develop a core message about your company’s reaction to the crisis and how you plan to keep moving forward. This is a brief statement, as short as one paragraph, that outlines the emergency’s impact on your company, what you’re doing about it, and what stakeholders should do. Examples of the latter might be how they can help you (donate), how you can help them (discounted rate, free stuff, toll-free helpline or other resources).

A simple but substantive core message is really important, because you should be able to draft all other communications materials based on the core message—so all the details are correct and consistent. Examples of these other messages include employee emails and newsletter articles, messages to the sales force, press releases, website content, or investor communication.

You should also write some succinct talking points for your CEO and any other company spokespersons, so they can have pertinent facts and key messages at their fingertips if they’re interviewed. At Blue Cross, we have a large customer service department who are the first point of contact for many of our members, so we make sure to give them talking points as well. Keeping those up to date is absolutely crucial.

Be clear and consistent.

With all four points, strive for clear language. People still don’t have time to try to wade through knee-deep corporate jargon. Also make sure to keep your company voice consistent and on-brand. That core message and your frequent team check-ins will help with that.

A long-time PR expert reading this now might be thinking, “Well, this is pretty basic!” And it is. However, people sometimes forget the fundamentals when a crisis hits. And, you can share this post with some of your less-experienced colleagues (see point three).