How to Handle Media Relations During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By ICR PR Team

We are all operating in uncharted waters as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended social norms and fundamentally altered how companies communicate with their stakeholders. It has also significantly impacted one of the primary channels through which individuals get and companies deliver information: the news media.

The airwaves and internet are overwhelmed with endless coronavirus content, which raises many practical questions for companies and organizations about if, how, when and under what circumstances they should be interacting with the media during this time of global crisis.

Here are some thoughts to inform your media relations during this unprecedented time period:

Corona is King
Understandably, the news day is packed with coronavirus content. There are a number of implications to this:

  • Most reporters will not be interested or available to cover anything unrelated to the pandemic.
  • Reporters from other beats are being assigned to virus-related coverage.
  • Every reporter will be looking for ways to cover their beat through the lens of the pandemic (e.g., restaurant businesses laying off employees; impact on markets and investments; insurance coverage; and so on).

Trade Media Tries to Stay Focused
While the national and mainstream media are consumed with coronavirus, trade media outlets are largely staying focused on their industries and continuing to report on non-virus related news. Of course they also include virus-related coverage when it impacts the industries they cover.

Is it Possible (or Advisable) to Conduct Proactive Media Relations Outreach?
While some companies are proactively engaging with media, it needs to be done in a strategic way, and only if relevant to what the reporters are covering now. That said, for companies considering proactive outreach, you need to be very careful at this time for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Availability of Reporters: As stated above, many reporters have been re-assigned from their original beats and many may simply not be available to cover other news.
  • Availability of Spokesperson: Reporters are on tighter deadlines than ever. If you are releasing news, make sure your spokesperson is available, flexible and on message. Reporters have limited their conversations, as they need to move on to the next source, so make every response count.
  • Tone Deaf Appearance: Follow the words of the Hippocratic Oath and “above all else, do no harm.” Companies should err on the side of caution in issuing or promoting news at this time to ensure it will not be viewed as out of touch, risking criticism or ridicule, or possibly creating a lasting negative brand impression.
  • Perceived Opportunism: There may be a temptation by some to promote their business or products in a way that seems relevant to the current crisis, but companies should take extra precaution to avoid the appearance of trying to capitalize on such a serious situation.
  • Avoid a Distracted Audience: If you have important news that you want to communicate, can it wait? There is a significant risk that any news issued at this time will get lost entirely or, at a minimum, not achieve the same level of awareness among your targeted audience.
  • Avoid the Most Crowded Media Day: If you desire to get a broadcast interview, avoid releasing news on a Monday, as it will have less impact given the backlog of news from the weekend. That said, be aware that only relevant news will reach the airwaves. In addition, newsrooms are thin-staffed and in all-hands-on-deck mode, so make sure your news is relevant to what they are looking for and covering. Interview formats have also shifted to call-in or Skype only, and even more than ever, are subject to cancellations at the last minute due to press conferences or breaking news. Patience is key.
  • For Industries Hit Hard, Reporters Want to Tell Real Stories: Industry beat reporters (whether national or trade) can be even more important than ever. They are digging into their networks to understand what’s going on under the surface so that everyone understands how critical their industry is. As such, many are looking for CEOs who will share their unique and real point of view during what is an unprecedented time for everyone.

How to Connect Your Story to the News Cycle
While companies need to be careful to avoid clumsy efforts to be relevant, there are many ways to appropriately engage with the media appropriately during this time. Companies with stories that are directly relevant — therapeutic treatments, medical supplies, virtual communication/education tools, at-home fitness, food delivery, grocery, health and wellness, etc. — should be using their platform to educate and support the current situation, while others can offer insight and commentary on how they are responding to ensure critical product supply and business continuity. Business and financial print and broadcast media are also looking for companies that are well positioned to not only weather this storm, but drive growth through it by virtue of the products and services they sell — as they are looking to help investors identify smart investment opportunities during this period of market volatility and beyond.

The Tide Will Turn (Eventually)
Just as the world is addressing this pandemic and getting back to normal, so too will the news media. It’s important for companies to monitor closely and be prepared as the shift will be gradual and reporters will start to look for stories that illustrate the transition (e.g., How were employees affected? What were some lessons learned? Will there be more pervasive work-from-home policies? Can certain businesses just start back up? Are there supply chain issues?). Where it is in a company’s interest to profile their individual situation, there will be opportunities to do so.

Take Advantage of the Lull in Proactivity
As previously stated, the tide will eventually turn. With media relations, as it relates to promoting normal course of business at a low, take advantage of this time to mine your company for interesting stories that can be pitched when the time is right. Polish content that’s been waiting in the wings so that when normalcy resumes, you have a plan in place to begin interacting with the media again.

Remember the Basics of Good Media Relations
At the center of good media relations is maintaining relationships with your core group of reporters and producers. Just because you can’t — and likely shouldn’t — pitch them right now, doesn’t mean you should be a stranger. Especially when it comes to your beat reporters who you have likely become friendly with, check in with them. This crisis has disrupted their work and personal lives too; a call to say hello and see how they’re doing will go a long way. The conversation will likely lead to insights into how they’re covering the virus and ways you may be able to help.

Enhance Your Direct Communications
During this time, companies should be expanding, enhancing and fully utilizing channels that allow them to directly reach their audiences including social media, customer email lists, videos and other content posted to the company website.

Learn more about our recommendations for engaging in social media during this time, and if you have additional questions about your media relations strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic, please reach out.