Responsible PR in the Age of Coronavirus

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In times of crisis, the public looks to leaders for comfort, reassurance and informed action. And with social and digital media as the largest source of how we now consume news, it’s more important than ever that companies get this right. Responsibly communicating information on the Coronavirus Disease (known by its technical name of COVID-19) to employees, customers and stakeholders is not only expected of today’s leaders, it may also help prevent the spread of a pandemic.

We are closely tracking the cancellation and postponement of events — like the world’s largest physics conference, Google’s I/O 2020 and even the country’s premier natural products showcase at Expo West — and are seeing real demonstrations of leadership by companies in educating and acting. Namely, they’re practicing responsible public relations at a time when it’s needed most. They’re using their platforms with calmness and an assurance of competency.

Here are some best practices that are rising to the top:

  1. Informed, decisive communications. What is your exposure, exactly? Are you checking with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on cases in your sales regions or territories? Are you attending national or international conferences? Does your company have a focal point monitoring updates on at least a daily basis? Finally, are the risks of not communicating outweighed by the benefits of proactive outreach? Once you have data points, be prepared to clearly communicate to your stakeholders. And remember: it’s always OK to change your mind as new evidence and data becomes available — just be sure to communicate that out as quickly as you can and note that this is an update based on new information.
  2. Be like Daniel. Our work in crisis communications leads us to one conclusion: this is a “we” moment, and not a “me” moment. In one of the best examples we’ve seen all week, a very thoughtful LinkedIn post from KIND’s Daniel Lubetsky explained why the Expo West event needed to be cancelled — several days before organizers ultimately postponed. It’s what we call “thought leadership” in our line of work, and in less than a week, the post has thousands of exceedingly positive engagements, shares and comments. Being a leader can come in many forms, and Daniel hit this one out of the park with a post that is authentic, thoughtful and decisive.
  3. Proactively communicate to your employees and customers. Be open with your employees about options to work from home and when not to come into work, and when to cancel their participation in upcoming travel. Let customers know if supplies or products are delayed. Send a MailChimp to your email list letting them know the precautions you’re taking to ensure their health and safety. Some of the best examples we’ve seen recently have all focused on the health and safety of their employees, which is the right way to approach this. The longer-term impacts may be seen in the form of anonymous 1-star employee reviews on Glassdoor, Google and Facebook, blistering social media posts or worse.
  4. Don’t be mushy. One of the busiest airports in the country recently said it’s “considered taking precautions to prevent coronavirus from spreading but doesn’t plan on taking any action right away.” Sounds less than comforting if you’re traveling through Denver International Airport, right? Be decisive in your communications: “We are doing X because we care for our employees and are concerned for their welfare. We are adopting Y to ensure that our employees and our customers can continue to receive the world-class service they expect from us.”
  5. Be helpful. We recommend calm communications to reassure and project leadership: use your head, wash your hands and rethink employee participation and attendance when other options exist. Use your company’s internal newsletter or intranet, as well as social media platforms — especially Facebook and Twitter — to share critical information from the CDC.
  6. No profiteering. This should go without saying. The reputational damage to your company could be severe — and rightly so.

And because we have a duty to inform, here are those common-sense and highly evidenced practices again: Wash your hands as often as you can, stay home when sick, listen to the local health authorities, save the masks and medical supplies for health care workers, listen to the experts and follow the science.

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