There’s no escaping it. The news cycle has been taken over by news related to the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it’s officially known in medical circles.
As a global health crisis goes, the coronavirus is already on the verge of bringing entire countries and economies to their knees. That presents a unique set of problems for those communications professionals charged with drumming up interest in their brands. Companies that counted on announcements of product launches or brand activations at major events like SXSW or HIMSS are now getting the cold shoulder from media outlets.
So what’s an enterprising technology brand to do when the 24/7 news cycle is consumed by a pandemic the likes of which we’ve never seen before in modern times?
New game, new rules
The spread of the coronavirus is forcing many tech brands to rethink their PR strategy. The key, however, is to not let the constant doom-and-gloom keep you paralyzed and watching from the sidelines. To remain relevant and stay top-of-mind among customers and prospects, companies need to find authentic ways to relate themselves to the coronavirus.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that the media is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to covering the virus. Journalists are looking for any kind of relevant pitches that can describe the impact the coronavirus is having on people, companies, financial markets, and even technology innovation. This article from the Wall Street Journal on how technology is being used to detect and fight the coronavirus is a perfect illustration of that kind of coverage.
What’s more, with no vaccine in sight yet, the coronavirus promises to linger, possibly reverberating through societies and economies around the world for months and maybe even years.
What that means for brands is that if you can’t develop a PR strategy that adapts to a coronavirus-led news cycle, then your chance of gaining media attention will flatline.
(Note: This post in no way advocates for taking advantage of the misery and suffering of others. It’s not the job of PR to find ways of profit from a crisis. Rather, it’s our job to find ways to make brands relevant to the times we live in, and make a case for winning valuable media mentions.)
Here are some story categories to focus on as you seek to pitch your business during the coronavirus pandemic.
Brands can get the media’s attention if they provide some kind of technology that helps identify, track, contain or support the battle against the coronavirus. But it has to be a meaningful connection to the news cycle.
For example, say your company provides video technology using facial recognition software capable of detecting early symptoms of strokes. With a little tweaking, maybe you are able to configure it so that you can do the same for coronavirus detection. In this case, your company can put its innovation square in the middle of the fight against a pandemic. The media will likely want to know how the technology can work to help governments and healthcare providers rapidly scale up detection and delivery of treatment protocols to combat the virus’ spread. Another angle of media interest? How the technology will ensure that it keeps the identities of users anonymous in order to stay HIPAA compliant.
For a real world example of how technology is helping, check out what Wall Street Journal reporter Angus Loten wrote for the media outlet’s CIO Journal.
Another way to approach the media during the coronavirus is to show how it is affecting the economy at the national and local level. As crazy as it must sound, in a mere month or so since its arrival in the U.S., the coronavirus has impacted almost every industry imaginable, from transportation and tourism to live events and retail.
The effect is so pervasive, and serious that in some cases, it represents an existential threat to businesses in certain industries and markets. A great example of this is an article published in the Wall Street Journal about the impact canceling SXSW is having on small businesses in Austin.
Air travel has already taken a huge hit with flights getting canceled due to a lack of passengers. Throw in a 30-day travel ban just announced by President Trump and the economic impact takes on seismic proportions. As noted in this CNN article, that turn of events presented a major PR opportunity for private jet services, many of which have seen a spike in requests from companies in the U.S. and Europe.
Another way to pitch during a prolonged crisis is by using an adaptation angle. As the coronavirus begins to change how communities and companies operate, journalists will want to capture real stories about how the world goes about the business of living. This article by Dion Hinchcliffe of ZDNet covers strategies and tools workers will need to work remotely as companies start moving their employees from their office to their homes.
An article on NBCNews.com discussed ways K-12 schools are preparing in the event that they have to educate kids remotely for an extended period of time. In truth, this story is part adaptation, part innovation. What it does well is provide insights on how students, teachers and parents will all be forced to adapt to a sudden school closure. One company that received a prime mention in the article is K-12, an online education company that licenses content to public schools.
The key to pitching a corporate citizenship story in a climate of fear and anxiety is to find an angle that both fits the needs of the moment and benefits your company’s reputation.
Take this example from Uber as reported in CNN. Uber, a trail blazer in the gig economy, has received plenty of negative media coverage over the years for a variety of issues and scandals. One knock against the company? Taking unfair advantage of drivers by paying them only when they work and not offering any traditional employee benefits like insurance, retirement matching and sick leave. Earlier this week the company announced it would offer its drivers and delivery people 14 days of sick leave if they contract the virus. It’s a major, if temporary, change for the ride-sharing giant. It also earned them positive news coverage from multiple national media outlets. For a company known for past scandals, this ‘change of heart’ became a chance to do the right thing in a crisis and, with any luck, begin to restore faith in its brand.
Trying to get media coverage during a time when the entire world’s attention is singularly focused on a dangerous pandemic is fraught with risk.
To be sure, business news will continue to get reported. VC fundings will get covered in TechCrunch, VentureBeat and Crunchbase. Product launches will make a splash in industry news outlets. Company milestones will get accolades in local news media.
There just won’t be as much room in the existing news cycle to cover these announcements as in the past. Nor will the public pay as close attention given how worried — and rightfully so — it is about the coronavirus.
Nevertheless, professional communicators can help brands rise to the occasion in this critical time. By finding authentic, meaningful ways to tie brands to the coronavirus narrative, PR will prove extremely valuable for companies looking to grow brand awareness, build trust and drive positive business outcomes.