Rising to the Communications Challenges Posed by Coronavirus

These are not normal times. I’m understating the case by several degrees, I realize. What are we to do when the real world comes to a grinding, scary coronavirus-instigated halt?

Your company’s communications with the outside world must adapt. Face it. You will not be able to impart your message with maximum efficiency, so adjust your mindset and your approach. What alternative avenues can you turn to? Here are some ideas.

Media relations

Remote interviews will become much more common. If you have an in house studio with a satellite uplink (and your facility remains open), make sure it is in good working order. You may be using it much more than anticipated.

Indeed, some TV stations are curtailing in-studio guests, so when you do have important news to impart and don’t have access to a satellite uplink, be prepared to do so via Skype or a similar video conferencing service. This means that you need to practice using such tools to avoid fumbling when the media calls.

Pandemic

If you have something of value that would aid the public’s understanding or help those in need in some way, try your best to get your story out. Is your company, for example, planning to forgive late fees or offering free meals for homebound low income students? This is news your community needs to know about. The media can help you get that message out. The telephone, email, and digital media are your friends.

Under no circumstances are you to take advantage of this crisis for business purposes. If you are a bedding manufacturer, for instance, do not try to sell more pillows on the theory that it will make the bedridden more comfy. Restaurants, please avoid any coronavirus specials; that spells tasteless in every meaning of the word.

Government institutions especially need to take the initiative in these times. Openness and clarity are needed now more than ever. Let your public know if you waive anything from driver’s license renewal requirements to library book due dates in the short term.

Presentations and meetings

These are not happening until at least the middle of May, per CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendation. This is going to make the exchange of ideas, approval processes, and professional development efforts taxing. Distance learning may step more to the forefront, though savvy companies need to acknowledge that not all meetings or trainings can be done remotely. You’ll just need to postpone some efforts.

If you have booked a speaking engagement, consider it cancelled or postponed. Get in touch with your host organization to see if they can slot you in for the rescheduled date or book you for next year’s meeting.

Some groups may try to shift their professional development programming to webinars. This is a bad idea unless you are dealing with a technical, rote skill. Sessions on how to execute a flawless Capitol Hill fly-in or a training session on how to deal with reporters demand the “laying on of hands.” Distance learning is a useless substitute with two narrow exceptions.

Advocacy

It is hard to say what level of activity federal, state, and local governments will retain. Essential functions must continue, everything from shoveling extra budget money to the fight against the virus to local trash pickup.

One thing is clear. In this strange new world, there is no way your spring fly-in is happening. Perhaps you’d best reschedule for the fall. Get those new arrangements done now while activity is low and hotels and conference centers would no doubt love to have your bookings.

Capitol Hill is closed down except to staff and escorted guests (and the way the ground is shifting, that may change soon), so committee hearings are a thing of the past for the time being. Spend the otherwise squandered time sharpening your message. You can do that virtually. While not ideal (it is far more effective to sit around a table and hash things out face-to-face), when life does resume, you’ll be closer to the finish line.

News consumers

Pay as little attention to the ceaseless “Coronavirus pandemic” television news bumpers as possible. I’m not arguing that you ignore the news. In this time of crisis that none of us has experienced before, we need to keep pace with advisories from legitimate health authorities. By this I mean the CDC and your state and local health boards. In fact, one expert interviewed on the BBC advised viewers not to watch too much news so as to protect their mental health.

Additionally, stay on the alert for that news reader who goes too far by giving air time to spurious conspiracy theories or that talk show host who asks needlessly alarming questions (hey, we’re all plenty alarmed already; who needs more?). Ignore them. They are not the experts.

Do not follow online links for “news organizations” that are nothing more than rumor mills. Stick with the tried and true. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post? Fine. Your local newspaper’s website? Great. “Poindexter’s Daily Bazooka” or the “Pandemics are going to kill us all” blog? Skip right by those.

It’s clear to me that my own business is going to suffer. No in person trainings or consultations means little in the way of revenue. I’m fortunate to be able to weather the storm (he said with hope).

And it looks like I’ll need to push back the publication date for my next book. I plan to spend the forthcoming cloistered weeks working on it — conducting interviews with experts over the phone, and organizing and writing the manuscript. I guess this qualifies as making lemonade out of the bitterest of lemons.

Dilemmas You May Face

Others may face a more difficult road. If you run a restaurant, you may already have been ordered by authorities to close your dining room and remain open only for take out and delivery. How do you let customers know about that? Perhaps you can fit your story into a media profile on how small businesses in your area are being affected.

Associations should take a look at how they communicate with members without overwhelming them with too much volume. They can also take a lesson from news outlets that have opened their paywalls and made coverage free; perhaps you have some valuable information you can share at no cost, at least for now.

If you run a small storefront business, you may close your location temporarily. This means you need to get the word out that your online shop remains open. Here, too, you may be able to squeeze in as part of a small business profile in your local media outlets.

If you’re a consultant, bolster your presence on sites like LinkedIn. Engage there with real intention. By this, I don’t mean simply clicking the “Like” button or adding one of those inane “Congrats” suggestions. Consider posting an honest-to-goodness comment instead. Contribute something thoughtful and incisive. A couple of sentences or paragraphs might be just the thing to lift a dejected colleague’s spirits. This helps us all pull closer as a community.

Is any of this optimal? Of course not. The sad fact is we are not living in optimal times.

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