Apr 13

COVID-19 and the media: Is it time yet?

I’m being asked, sometimes on an hourly basis, when it will be time to share non-COVID-19 news with the media.

My answer always seems less than satisfying: I don’t know, but not right now.

In my more than three decades of working in and with the media, I’ve never seen anything like the current environment we are in. Let’s face it, no one has. The only thing that came close was 9/11. In the aftermath of that national tragedy, public relations professionals collectively paused “business as usual” for weeks as America struggled to come to terms with those horrific terrorist attacks.

There wasn’t a memo asking – or telling – us to do so. There was no collective discussion. It just felt wrong to be pitching stories about a new business trend, charity events or product launches during such an all-consuming period of national grief.

COVID-19 had a stealth quality to it. The first headlines from China no more than a whisper in December. More cases, more news. I remember getting ready for work and listening to an NPR report on factories being idled after the Chinese New Year. As the former auto supply reporter for The Grand Rapids Press, I knew many critical components were built in China and shipped to American suppliers and OEMs – and I figured this disruption would impact Michigan and therefore be news.

A few hours later, I had connected with attorneys at Warner Norcross + Judd to develop and localize this story, working with a colleague in Detroit to secure coverage in WZZM, Grand Rapids Business Journal, Crain’s Detroit Business, Chicago Tribune and others. This was in mid- to late-February, which feels like a century ago at this point.

As the novel coronavirus spread, it consumed more of our attention – and more media coverage. As we approached March 23, stories about COVID-19 were already crowding the airwaves and the pages of media around Michigan. As soon as Gov. Whitmer issued her Stay Home, Stay Safe order closing all non-essential businesses that Monday, coverage began focusing exclusively on our response to COVID-19 – and life again shifted dramatically for those of us in public relations.

It once again felt tone deaf to be talking about anything other than COVID-19. That meant we had to park a lot of media pitches and press releases already underway, from promotions and awards to program updates and new technology.

Instead, we wrote internal messaging for clients who found themselves canceling events, pausing manufacturing operations, shifting to distance learning and remote work. We wrote donor letters asking for contributions to aid the fight against the coronavirus. We developed scripts for receptionists to respond to callers and for CEOs to reassure their teams. We drafted board updates, letters to stakeholders of all stripes, new blogs and social media posts.

What few pitches and releases we have done in the past four weeks have been focused exclusively on relief efforts. We were honored to work with the team at Altus in Walker to promote a new ventilator cart they had begun producing, helping them earn a national AP story as well as great local coverage. We were equally honored to amplify the generosity of Guiding Light, a nonprofit lending its Heartside facility to Kent County as an isolation center for those experiencing homelessness.

We’ve helped to place a great column and blog series for friends at the Vantage Group on the various challenges of leading the isolated worker. We’ve been able to successfully share the launch of a new YouTube channel by Emmanuel Hospice, which is crowdsourcing uplifting content from our community to break through the isolation experienced by patients and families. And we have continued to support the attorneys at Warner, who are continuing to develop and aggregate great and timely content in their COVID-19 response center.

So when will it be time to start telling OTHER stories? While I don’t have a crystal ball, I know it’s not time yet. West Michigan media are still focused almost exclusively on COVID-19. We have started to send out “names and faces” type releases for a few clients, announcing new hires and promotions. But we are recommending more substantive news wait for the crease – which will come.

While this response has disappointed some clients, virtually all agree to the necessity of a pause. Don’t get me wrong: we’re encouraging our clients to continue talking with their stakeholders – employees, boards, donors, volunteers, community partners, you name it – during this strange time. We are just recommending they (mostly) skip the media right now.

This pause will not last forever – and the media and their audiences will be just as grateful to report on and read or listen to stories OTHER than COVID-19. But not just yet.

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