News & Insights

Media Relations in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Karina Frayter

Smartphone displaying the news.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to hold the world in its grip, companies across industries are adapting to this new reality and changing how they do business, including how they communicate.

In this unprecedented environment, communications to both internal and external audiences has become more complicated, but also more important than ever. Company leaders are finding that they can’t fall back on the usual forms, tone and frequency of their communications.

One of the many questions corporate communications professionals are thinking through is how to engage with the media and indeed, whether to engage at all.

The good news is that while we are operating in a new framework, when it comes to media relations, fundamental rules remain intact:

  • Stay on top of what is happening around and the impact it’s having.
  • Anticipate news cycle opportunities. Be relevant and newsworthy.
  • Know your outlet, reporter, and coverage interests.
  • Don’t sell, provide value.
  • Think before you pitch.
  • Assess risks versus rewards.

That said, a number of developments in the current media landscape are worth keeping in mind when devising a near-term approach to media relations.

It’s All About the Coronavirus

Not surprisingly, national and local newsrooms have committed nearly all their resources to the pandemic. The media is covering the story from all angles around the clock, as people search for information and consume news at record levels.

By all accounts, stories directly related to COVID-19 are top priority for reporters and editors. “Everyone is a coronavirus reporter now,” the Wall Street Journal recently quoted a chief executive at the Tampa Bay Times, where sports reporters had been reassigned to focus on virus-related coverage.

National business media is focused on the economic fallout from the crisis and its implications for global markets, individual companies, industries, and people’s finances.

Trade media has more appetite for non-virus related stories; so does lifestyle/consumer media, where people turn to for entertainment and distraction during this stressful time. However, even for these types of publications, the threshold for coverage is much higher right now.

While Opportunities Abound, Proceed with Caution

The pandemic is a vast and urgent topic, and demand for content is endless. That means there are many opportunities for companies to meaningfully engage with the media.  But tone and relevance are essential.

This crisis is a human tragedy affecting millions of people on many levels. Extreme sensitivity at all stages of the process – from selecting story angles, to messaging, to pitching reporters and posting on social – is critical, as is evaluating risks and potential for backlash against what you say and how you say it.

Editors and reporters are looking to provide their audiences with practical, informative and action-oriented content.

Companies that have stories directly relevant to the crisis, or that can offer unique insights or solutions to the challenges of the COVID-19 world – be it health and wellness, remote work, or any other aspect – are well positioned to get reporters’ attention.

Reporters also appreciate insights that add value to the conversation and are interested in speaking with industry experts that can help them connect the dots.

During these trying times, media and its audiences are also looking to companies and corporate CEOs for leadership and solutions. Business media in particular is interested to hear from corporate executives who are willing to share their unique and real point of view.

This challenging period is also a good opportunity for brands to lean into their purpose and position themselves as leaders in their industry, be it by taking care of their workforce in a meaningful way or addressing urgent needs of communities where they operate. Innovative ideas and bold actions get noticed.

Many outlets are also looking for feel good stories about people and businesses making a difference. For example, the Financial Times has recently put out a call for stories about companies that are genuinely doing good by their workers, and USA Today has been looking to highlight how communities or businesses are coming together.

To find right opportunities, it’s important to be creative, stay on top of new developments and focus on stories that allow your company to join the conversation in an authentic way.

What is happening in the world and what’s the impact on people’s lives? Where are things headed? Think about what your target audience cares about at this moment and where you can add value.

When deciding on whether to pitch a reporter, it’s best to err on the side of caution rather than risk being perceived as opportunistic or tone deaf, and possibly creating a lasting negative brand impression. Many reporters are shaming pitches on social media that appear to exploit the pandemic.

Empathize with Reporters

The pandemic has profoundly impacted personal and professional lives of all of us, and that includes reporters.

Journalists also have family and friends whose lives have been upended. Most of them are working from home and are even under more stress than usual, as many news organizations have started to cut or furlough staff due to the crisis. Their deadlines are tighter and their attention is harder to get.

It’s important to empathize with reporters right now. This will go a long way.

Recent posts on social media also suggest that different reporters have different levels of tolerance for pitches. While some journalists are focused on managing a constant flow of hard news and are outright annoyed with pitches, others are looking for ideas that help them cover their beat through the lens of the pandemic. The third group pleads to stop sending them coronavirus-related pitches and asks to, instead, offer other ideas.

These mixed messages suggest that it’s more important than ever to vet reporters before reaching out to see their pitch preference, as well as determine their recent coverage interests in case they temporarily switched beats.

Be One Step Ahead of News

If there are no immediate opportunities for proactive outreach, remember that things change, and they change fast. Each day brings new opportunities for those who keep on top of news and stay one step ahead.

What’s more, news coverage will eventually start to shift from breaking news to analysis and lessons learned, presenting new openings. The transition to normalcy will be gradual, so constantly monitor developments and anticipate news cycle opportunities.

Some Things Should Wait

For companies looking to engage reporters on the non-virus related stories, it is important to weigh such outreach against business objectives. Right now may not be the best time to launch a new product, unless it addresses a pressing issue caused by COVID-19, or try to raise awareness about a new campaign.

Not only is it harder to get and keep media’s attention in this environment, you are also dealing with a distracted audience, thus risking that your news will not resonate or will completely get lost. Now is the time to provide value, not sell.

Be Ready to Respond

With so many people getting sick and companies laying off or furloughing employees, it is also important to be ready to address incoming questions from reporters. It may be helpful to have holding statements for all potential scenarios and think through tough questions.

Lean into Direct Communication

This is also a good time for companies to lean into their direct communication and tell their story through owned channels including social media, video or blogs on the corporate site, and emails to customers. That way they can continue to reach target audiences without solely waiting for the news environment to normalize.

In Summary

How companies communicate during this crisis could impact how the world – including the media – will see them for years to come. For that reason, considerations related to brand reputation should be the main drivers of a nearterm corporate media relations strategy. Companies that demonstrate leadership, add value and build human connections will find opportunities that outlast the pandemic.

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