Even for the most well-prepared of brands, it’s unlikely that many had prepared a crisis plan robust enough to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. And, how could they? The situation is changing by the day. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

At Souter PR, we’re busy advising our clients on the ‘whys, ifs and hows’ of communication output in these challenging times. Amongst such uncertainty, brands and their agency partners are having to decide if – and indeed, how – to communicate and engage with media and consumers.

For some, we’re continuing with similar strategies that we’d originally developed – with a few modifications, of course. It’s business as normal (as it possibly can be, of course).

For others, we’re completely changing tack – postponing launches, rebrands and events – and developing entirely new campaigns and adopting more relevant and acceptable tones of voice that reflect these trying times we find ourselves in.

What is already clear from the many virtual meetings we’re having – and from what we’re reading online and gleaning from chats with our PR and wider comms peers – is that this pandemic is affecting each and every brand uniquely.

There are many shared challenges to overcome and potential pitfalls to avoid, but there is also very much a place for PR – as long as it’s implemented authentically and with a commitment that respects the current climate.

So, when developing our client’s pandemic PR strategies, there are a number of really important questions that we always ask.

Does your brand have any relevance or connection to the coronavirus conversation?

Stick within your area of expertise and what you’re good at. This is absolutely not the time to be making tenuous links.

A number of leading journalists have already been openly critical of the surge in news releases from brands desperately cobbling together a story to tap into the current news agenda. One has even gone as far as to tweet that she’s saving these press releases for future reference – a blacklist of brands and PRs she won’t ever work with again.

In times of stress and anxiety like these, consumers are hypervigilant – and they’re especially sensitive right now to anything that looks like a brand is exploiting the situation. As consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow wrote in her recent Marketing Week post: “Brands really do have to be incredibly careful right now because consumers are definitely taking notes.”

Can your brand add any real value to the situation?

Does your brand have anything of actual value to contribute as this pandemic takes hold – whether that’s practically or from an advisory perspective? Please be honest with yourself. If you’re still unsure, chances are you can’t. But to remove all doubt, why not ask an objective third party who you know will tell you the truth?

If you don’t have anything to say but are just desperate to say something, we recommend you don’t. We can guarantee that this won’t be news. It won’t be worthy of a release.

Does it even have the faintest whiff of a PR stunt?

When they go well, they can fly – turning a brand into overnight success. We also know that they can spectacularly backfire. Whatever the idea or execution, now is not the right time.

Everyone is feeling pretty emotional right now, which makes it really risky to attempt anything that can be perceived as profiteering on the back of the pandemic – and the stress, illness, isolation and insecurity that it brings.

Amongst those to have gained most media backlash, so far, include Philip Morris International’s donation of ventilators to the Greek government as infections mount in the country. As the world’s largest multinational tobacco company, it has been accused of a “shameful publicity stunt” as evidence suggests that smokers are more likely to suffer more severely.

However, LVMH – the parent company of Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands – pulled off a masterstroke (and provided the perfect example of how a brand can get it right!) when it stopped perfume and cosmetic production to churn out hand sanitizer. The move was made to help overcome a nationwide shortage of across France and, packaged in repurposed Dior bottles, these gels are now being delivered free of charge to health authorities.

Ask yourself if anyone would really be bothered?

At Souter PR, we work really hard with – and indeed, for – our clients to make sure that the relationships we create with media and audiences are strong. We do everything we can to tell fabulous news in a style they want to read or watch, through the channels they use the most. They’re marketing basics.

But times are different at the moment – and they will be for a while yet. In fact, they’ll probably never be the same again.

That’s why we all need to really consider these hard-earned relationships into account when deciding whether to communicate or not. Do they really need unnecessary and irrelevant brand ‘noise’ adding to their lives right now? Probably not. Will they just find it annoying and crass? Probably yes.

So what we can be doing?

Find out what journalists are asking for and respond to those queries. We subscribe to media enquiry services and keep our eyes and ears on relevant social handles and hashtags and we’re seeing more requests than ever for stories, contributions, comments and case studies. Yes, many of them are pandemic-related, but lots aren’t.

Now is also an excellent time to prepare for the future. Life will probably not be as we previously knew it, but we’ll arrive at a new normal, which will – for some brands – require a revised stance or offering.

We’re working with a couple of clients who will be operating in a different space when we enter the new ‘normal’. We’re using what is a slightly quieter time for them to develop campaigns that will support their return to full business with a comms strategy that’s ahead of the game.