Tim Brennan

30 March 2020

As the pandemic continues, it has become increasingly apparent that navigating the myriad issues presented by COVID-19 is by no means simple in communications. B2B brands often feel uneasy about PR in times of crisis – they want to avoid being viewed as opportunistic and don’t know what content is appropriate to share.

We hosted an online Q&A round table with a panel of B2B Tech Journalists including Gary Flood, (Diginomica and Information Week US), Steven Mathieson (The Register, The Guardian and Computer Weekly) and Guy Clapperton, (The Guardian, Times, Independent, Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph), to find out what they think are the best practices for media relations in times of crisis.

Here are the top ten nuggets of wisdom that they were so kind to bestow upon us.

  1. Bring legitimate solutions to business problems to the table. Gary made it clear that B2B tech PR professionals need to consider “what are the smart things that CIOs, CMOs, and business managers could be doing about this?”. Steve concurred: ‘if it’s relevant and suitable in the public service, I think that’s good.”
  2. Be judicious in what you say. Guy advised that brands need to be cautious when it came to content such as predictions articles. “The more predictions you put out there the earlier into this, the more chance you have of them being proven wrong in a matter of weeks.” He continued, “Remember this is the internet, it will come back and haunt you.
  3. Continue to share non-COVID-19 related news. “Businesses don’t want to stop, so they need to do news releases when stuff actually happens,” said Guy. Steve added that businesses’ news is especially valued “if it’s practical announcements about how businesses can help services, vulnerable people – people in general.”
  4. Look ahead to the future. All our panellists agreed on this point, with Guy prompting the discussion: “It’s not just about what’s out there at the moment but what’s going to be out there in the future.” It’s the job of PR professionals to stay ahead of the news agenda in order to provide insightful content on behalf of our clients. “As IT professionals what can you do to help?” is the question that Steve believes should be on every B2B tech communicator’s mind as the crisis enters its next phase.
  5. Be receptive to journalist requests. Steve emphasised the value of reactive commentary to journalists in a crisis, as opposed to proactive media outreach. “Being reactive to what journalists are asking for may be as important as putting out announcements to help provide advice, guidance and ideas to professionals working out how to cope with the new world.”
  6. Clear messaging is valued by all. It sounds obvious, but a legitimate business solution may be overlooked if the reader feels alienated by its phrasing. As Gary put it, “Clients love to hide behind jargon.” Steve reiterated, “If you are communicating in a straightforward and understandable way, then you are adding to the public service efforts.”
  7. It’s as much about what you leave out of the painting as what you put in. The words of Gary’s school art teacher ring true today – “If you’ve got nothing to say about coronavirus, then don’t.”
  8. Be patient; everyone is currently rushed off their feet. “This is not a good time to chase things up,” Steve advised.
  9. Consider CSR options. COVID-19 has opened up conversations around the environment, equality and other CSR related issues. Steve highlighted the need for businesses and PR professionals alike to look at “how this has changed the world and how we can get some good out of this.” Currently, there is an urgency to deal with the problem immediately in front of us. Steve added, that “offering free advice and services is a really good idea right now.”
  10. Strike a sincere and human tone. Tone is everything. As Gary noted, during times of crisis “there is a human commonality, so we should dial down the hard sell.” Guy continued, that tone should always “be about the people, why their lives are different because of a certain solution, why their lives are better. People buy from people.”

The sentiment that characterised this panel discussion was one of partnership and altruism between the PR and media industries. Steve summarised this position perfectly in his parting advice to communications professionals: “Be a part of public service. As a journalist this is part of our job, but if can be of help that is great.”

Click here to listen to the audio of the round table discussion in full.