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What YOU Can Learn From the COVID-19 PR Response

Ah, public relations … seems like a waste of time till you bungle it up and have the media knocking on your door. In “these difficult times” it’s more important than ever to get your messaging right. Let’s help you with that.

Here are our top seven tips for good communications with the public:

Don’t Lie

This sounds obvious, but when you get in hot water the natural inclination is to try to minimize. I’m telling you the truth will out, so don’t ever lie or downplay the information you’re providing.

Example: Donald Trump flat out lied at several points throughout the pandemic, saying the country was turning the corner, even as the death toll climbed. Early in the pandemic he regularly downplayed the impact it would have on the country and he frequently argued he closed the borders to China earlier than he did.

The media WILL fact check you. So whether it’s a small, white lie or a big gaping one. The story will soon change from your response to the fact that you lied - diminishing your credibility in the future.

Clear the Air

You gave a statement and now the facts have changed. How do you handle it?

Example: Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief doctor frequently changed her stance on several aspects of the pandemic, starting with a statement that it wouldn’t really impact Canada. After several months, she changed her stance on recommending three layered non-medical masks whenever not at home.

It’s OK! When information changes - and it will - be upfront about that information. Be clear that the situation has changed, which has changed the facts. People will be frustrated, but will see you weren’t hiding anything and be more understanding.

Don’t blame others

Made a mistake? Own up to it publicly and on the record. Many world leaders have made mistakes throughout the pandemic response. It’s a novel virus and didn’t come with a playbook on how to proceed.

Example: There are too many to mention here, whether it was Georgia’s governor and Atlanta’s mayor rallying in the press, or finger-pointing from the Trump administration at other nations. There was a lot of blaming and shaming going around during this pandemic.

This key tenet of crisis communications goes back to our point about not covering up the truth. Taking your lumps shows integrity. Life will be hard for a while as people point to you as the cause of a problem, but this integrity also brings respect. If you need to apologize, do so.

Be Sympathetic

If your actions have hurt someone, if your business has failed someone; come to your press conference humble. Come to it with an apology and come to it with a plan.

Example: Many, MANY businesses failed to educate themselves about systemic injustices against people of colour and during the Black Lives Matter protests they demonstrated their ignorance. I will not mention the name of one local business who did this, but their rebranding (we see you) will not be what gets them out of the hot water.

People don’t forget how you’ve failed them. Some empathy and sympathy - or barring that, some respect - can go a long way to repairing your public image.

Be prepared

It ain’t easy to make a plan for a completely new and surprising situation. However, a plan for your next press conference should be easier. In the hours before you step into the spotlight, decide what you are willing to talk about and what you are not willing to talk about.

Example: Newfoundland and Labrador’s Chief Medical Officer of health has been doing a great job (Go Janice!) of sharing information about individual cases of COVID without ever giving away names or identifying information to the public, which in this province is a HARD job cause everyone knows everyone else’s business.

Making a plan in advance of your interview will help you stay on message and keep personal details out of the press.

Provide a Solution

If you know what your response to the situation will be or if you have a way to mitigate the impacts of your crisis, share it as early as possible.

Example: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did do a great job of nearly immediately communicating the government's stimulus response to the country. While all the details were not entirely available, and some major problems have arisen out of this financial aid package, all-in-all what people will remember is how quickly he stepped from outside his house and spoke to the nation about not abandoning them in a time of need.

If you’re not ready to announce a solution, say you’re working on it and set a time to do so.

Keep it short

In general short sentences - called soundbites in the media - are short clips which convey information quickly. Long rambling statements are often taken out of context because they HAVE to be shortened into a headline or quote.

Example: Rambly McTrump Face. That is all.

The more you ramble, the more likely you’ll feel stilted by the media. Do yourself a favour and keep your sentences, and responses to the media, quick and short.

The Situation - Handled

Not all businesses or public people are going to get into hot water and need crisis communications, but many businesses will at some point. In many cases, it will be a simple mistake or miscommunication that gets you in that hot water. By following these steps you can better get a handle on the situation and get it sorted quickly - getting you out of the spotlight and back working in your business.

If you’re not confident in your ability to handle the media, get in touch. We help clients like you prepare for the best outcomes.

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