Media relations best practice during COVID-19
Aligning to the new normal of a singular focused news cycle
We are living and working in unprecedented times as the coronavirus crisis dominates so many aspects of our daily lives. With the blanket coverage of COVID-19, the pandemic is also challenging the way we engage in media relations.
Be practical, don’t sell
The best advice is be practical and use common sense when pitching non-coronavirus-related news and updates. Very few stories will cut through unless they are related to coronavirus. Those who can’t or don’t have that connection need to wait this out. This is not a time to ‘sell’ a story, a product, or a company; that would be rejected as tone deaf. But it is a time to support the greater good with stories that inform and add to our national response.
In one example, the Wall Street Journal launched a free section on its website offering practical advice on all things coronavirus. This trend is more prevalent, along with outlets sending daily newsletters devoted to the COVID-19 topic.
COVID-19 is 24/7 for national, local and trade media
For most national mainstream media, it is COVID-19, 24/7. National and local journalists in the major affected markets in California, New York and Washington state are stretched thin. Top-tier healthcare reporters such as the New York Times have told us “we don’t have the bandwidth for anything other than coronavirus”.
Business media are mostly interested in the impact on the nation’s economy and how this will affect companies, industries and employees. The trend of employees moving to remote working will be challenging for many companies that may not be prepared. Productivity may drop, supply chains may be impacted, and revenues and forecasts recalibrated. If you want to weigh in on the economic impact or if you are doing more than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending to keep workers safe and productive in the current environment, then reach out to business media. The supply chain / logistics angle is a hot one too. Retailers are struggling to keep up with consumer demand.
On a positive news front, companies such as Grubhub and U-Haul that have pushed strong CSR messages have received noteworthy media coverage. Grubhub said last week that to help independent restaurants meet payroll and rent as dining sales plunge during the coronavirus crisis it would suspend up to $100m in commission fees, while U-Haul is offering free storage for college students who have had to move out of their dorms at short notice.
Reporters at local daily newspapers and business journals will be tailoring their stories to local market needs. For example, the Chicago Tribune is putting out a daily coronavirus update newsletter with different stories. The lead piece on Sunday 22 March was about local retailers not being able to stock shelves fast enough. There were also two long features on working from home. Think local when pitching.
Trade media are hungry for any relevant stories on how their industries are being affected, and they are creating special pages to curate all relevant news. Trade pitches are a safer way to go.
When engaging with media, choose the right story
Here’s our take on a few sectors from H+K subject-matter experts:
If your pitch doesn’t have coronavirus in it, consider holding it for another time. Healthcare reporters are writing about various health impacts, from the plight of the overworked nurse to new ways to handle the intake of those who are showing signs of the illness. For one health system, we’re getting traction with top-tier coverage on how they are using telehealth technology to treat and to screen for coronavirus. Another health system is talking about hospital preparedness. For the pharma industry, the only news that matters relates to potential treatments and vaccines. And of course, for diagnostics, it’s the development and availability of testing.
Coverage is ramping up on the remote worker and the technologies behind making this happen. Most reporting focused initially on industry events such as SXSW, Mobile World Congress, E3 and others being cancelled or postponed by notable tech brands such as Google, Facebook and Adobe, or in the case of Apple, switching to an online format. Major tech industry employers such as Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Salesforce moved quickly to institute work-from-home policies and limit travel. Tech journalists are receptive to stories that truly inform and illuminate under-reported or less obvious ways that companies and people might be impacted. As more tech brands explore ways to participate in the news cycle, brands should expect reporters to be more sceptical as they seek to determine whether a story premise is self-serving. The sensitivities mean the bar for "should we pitch this?" is high. Many journalists are sharing their PR pitching jeers (and a few cheers) on Twitter.
Energy and industrials
What had been a context defined by the climate debate has been supplanted by the industry’s very survival. The energy industry is experiencing a triple whammy: dealing with the virus itself – especially in offshore operations and employees spread across the globe; COVID-19 shutting down or severely limiting critical supply chain; and then there’s the Saudi-Russia oil price war that threatens to drive the price of oil lower than economics can bear in the USA. Reporters are interested in impacts from all of the above, including the massive lay-offs expected in the oilfield services sector. Intriguingly, this has also showcased the interrelatedness of renewable energy and oil – with several articles connecting the slowdown of renewables due to lack of resource availability from oil companies and oil supplies to make renewable energy components. How companies are managing COVID-19 and all its various dimensions and impacts throughout the supply chain is top of mind for reporters now.
General lifestyle media have shifted their focus to stories relevant to current events, although noticeably they do continue to post unrelated stories from time to time. For example, trending stories on Refinery29 and PopSugar certainly have a tie back to COVID-19, i.e. Under-30 minute cardio workouts you can do from your living room and Tips to help others during the coronavirus outbreak. However, there are topics that remain popular, from celebrity news and DIY to spring fashion. Niche publications are more likely to concentrate on stories outside current events. It’s important to note that most editors are not accepting products or samples. While the attention has certainly shifted, do continue to pitch long-lead topics, especially as editors and contributors are seeking content for longer-lead stories and continue to gather information for down the road.
Reporters covering government are solely focused on the policy and political implications of COVID-19. If you have a unique take on those policy implications, or if you have a legitimate offering that will better the government’s response to this crisis, you may have a chance at generating coverage. That said, at this time government beat reporters have their plates full covering the steps public officials and public sector agencies at all levels are taking to manage the crisis for their constituents. Your chances of having your calls returned by reporters are minimal at this unique moment in time.
26 March 2020
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