Media relations in the time of COVID

We’re in unchartered territory. Or so they say.

For those of us who toil in the trenches of media relations – and who are old enough to painfully remember that there was a short-lived “Friends” spinoff called “Joey” – this moment in our nation’s history has an eerie déjà vu quality to it. I’m referring to the weeks if not months following 9-11 when pitching your client’s story to the media was not only seen as tone deaf but enough of a transgression to get your media relations hall pass confiscated for good. News outlets, including their business desks, were singularly focused on the impact of the terrorist attack and its fallout, and they had no room (nor patience) for pitches that blithely ignored the new reality we were suddenly living in.

And so here we are again, and for media relations professionals, such moments not only require great discipline, but for many of us, sufficient persuasive abilities to convince clients that now – and perhaps even months from now – is not the time to be pitching stories about new product flavors, the long-awaited launch of a new app or their latest customer-satisfaction ratings. It’s our equivalence of speaking truth to power. Let’s face it, someone’s gotta do it.

But does the evidence back up basically going into a media relations hiatus? I wondered, so I did some digging. I went online and clicked on the business sections of four national newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today – and I reviewed the business stories of the week between April 6 and April 13, interested to see how many business stories were not COVID-19 related.

There were few surprises. Virtually every story on these business pages were told through the lens of the pandemic’s impact. The fact that Disney Plus got 50 million subscribers in only five months could be contributed to a nation in quarantine (though we will never know for sure). The strip clubs on Instagram (who knew?) are having a spike in popularity, according to The Times. The Journal reports that Facebook’s ad rates are falling precipitously, and USA Today reports on the boom in the raising of backyard chickens. Even stories that otherwise might be seen as straightforward news – the launch of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new Quibi service (think Netflix in short form) is reported by The Post through the prism of the pandemic. There were few exceptions – the death of Yankee co-owner Hank Steinbrenner and regular earnings reports, for example – but coverage these days is basically wall-to-wall COVID.

I wondered if that was the case with more localized papers. The Washington Business Journal’s April 10 issue was pandemic-themed through and through, including a frontpage story entitled “Navigating the Crisis” in a headline that consumed most of the page. Some PR folks seized on the timing. The team at Skincando, Inc., aware that all the prescribed handwashing and sanitizing would cause dry skin, was at the ready with its Combat-Ready Balm. Then there were the two Peruvian brothers who just opened their dream restaurant, only to pivot to takeout and delivery only. And more of the same, including interviews with various CEOs on how they are adjusting.

Here in Richmond, business news at The Times-Dispatch also has been decidedly COVID-centric, replete with widespread news about local layoffs and furloughs and, of course, one of RVA’s favorite business topics – grocery stores. (News of the coming of a second Trader Joe’s was received akin to a Second Coming.) The paper also is continuing some of its regular features, such as its “Getting to Know” column and commercial real estate roundup, but the implicit message to public relations pros is to conform your pitches to meet the climate of the time.

As Yogi Berra reportedly said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” But not quite. The biggest difference between then and now is that in 2001, there were no social media platforms. LinkedIn would not spring forth for another year, while Mark Zuckerberg was just 17 when the Twin Towers came down. These and other platforms now give PR professionals productive avenues for staying in touch with current customers and, with the proper restraint and strategy, even reaching new ones. Ideally, I believe that media relations and content strategies work best together, but during this post-crisis environment, PR people would be well advised to focus their efforts on leveraging social media tools to their best advantage.

As Yogi might also say, this crisis “is not over until it’s over,” and until then, we’ll see you online.  

Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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