Mar 16

Living in unprecedented times: COVID-19 communications (part 2)

Every email blast, social media post or website update shared last week in connection with COVID-19 had an invisible team of people behind it.

I know this firsthand because my team and I wrote these communications for nearly two-dozen clients. In my 36-year career, I have never seen anything as intense, demanding or immediate in my professional life. The aftermath of 9/11 comes close, yet was entirely different in the demands it placed on all communications professionals.

At Sabo PR, we are accustomed to issues and crisis management. It’s part of our corporate DNA and, as my nutritionist remarked last year, something that feeds my professional soul. I take immense satisfaction from being able to walk with clients in their dark hours and provide support, clarity and a path forward.

Last week, though, was a true test for me and my team. So many of our clients needed things RIGHT NOW that it became challenging to prioritize because everyone was a priority. And each of our clients had very different stakeholders and so required very tailored communications to their needs.

This was all compounded by the fact that guidance from public health officials and government leaders evolved rapidly. As confirmed cases escalated, executive orders increased in Michigan. What we knew at 8 a.m. had often changed by noon. On Thursday, as Brian and I waited for Gov. Whitmer’s 11 p.m. press conference, we were conferring with four clients who were poised to react.

Social media further complicated our communication efforts. Rants on Facebook became a call to action for more than one client who was trying to stay out in front of the rumor mill.

Most of our clients also faced an undue amount of peer pressure. As one of our clients wryly noted, it was like a snow day that no one wanted – but everyone had to deal with. When Michigan State University decided to cancel face-to-fact instruction, it set a precedent for every university and college in the state. The same was true in each category where our clients operated.

The media – local, statewide and national – did a herculean job of keeping up with the blur of news and updates. As I did during 9/11, my team and I stopped all outreach except for what was related to COVID-19 in order to allow media to focus. We’ll pick back up with non-coronavirus news when the time is appropriate.

Our clients, too, did an incredible job of talking with their stakeholders, both internally and externally. Since our team does so much ghostwriting for our CEOs, city managers and executive directors, it was relatively easy to step in and provide the communication tools needed in the voice that was expected.

Last Monday morning, when I penned my blog about communicating COVID-19, I had no idea what a roller coaster the week would be. Today, as I hijack Brian’s blog spot and reflect on the week just concluded, I might modify the last of my seven pointers and change “update regularly” to “update when you have news to share.” I received too many needless updates from organizations who, in the name of transparency, were overcommunicating.

I am particularly grateful this Monday for the tremendous work of our team, who embodied so many points of our social contract last week. Clients come first. No task is too great and no assignment is too small. We always ask: “how can I help you get out of here?” And most especially, We always have our roller skates on.

As we start this week, I’m not sure what changes are on the horizon. Since I began writing this blog, all restaurants and bars have been ordered to close by 3 p.m. My team and I are in the office this morning, but this might be the last Monday we gather together for awhile.

Whatever does happen, though, we have our cell phones, laptops and roller skates – and we are still here to serve.


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