As a reporter for nearly 20 years, I’ve covered my share of public health emergencies; from the HIV/AIDs epidemic, to SARs, anthrax and the resurgence of measles. While the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any other public health emergency in our lifetime, reporters’ needs – and those of your key audiences – remain the same: trusted, scientifically-based information that is clear, concise and consistent.
Padilla’s Coronavirus Response Team and our 30+ media relations experts, many former journalists like me, offer the following tips for engaging with media during this pandemic:
- Ensure that your external communications tactics align with your overall crisis communications plans. Your crisis communications management team is meeting and responding to COVID-19 topics throughout each day. Don’t go rogue and send out media pitches unless they align with your company’s overall reputation management plans. You don’t want to come across as tone-deaf.
- At this time, focus pitches on COVID-19 expertise and support. The pandemic is dominating the news cycle and that doesn’t look to be shifting. Now is the time for offering tips or Op-eds/contributed bylines surrounding expertise. But, be sure your expertise is “helping” those impacted, not focused on your organization being lauded for its efforts or trying to drive patient traffic. This is no time for marketing.
- Understand media are under similar restrictions as you, many are telecommuting or attending no or very few press events, and those that are will be practicing social distancing (some news bureaus/offices have even closed because employees have tested positive for COVID-19). Make it as easy as possible for reporters to work with you. The Mayo Clinic News Network and the Cleveland Clinic Newsroom are great examples of how organizations are packaging vital health information that reporters can “plug and play” from high resolution b-roll video/images and interview clips, to complete broadcast quality news stories and/or virtual press conferences.
- Make sure your experts can do digital/off-site interviews. Many media outlets have suspended all in-person interviews and video shoots. Make sure your experts can be available for Skype-in interviews or call-ins. Check to see if they need training for virtual interviews, more tips on that here.
- Mailers, product drops and in-person meetings have all been cancelled. Consider if desk-side meetings could be offered as video chats/phone calls. Be aware, if the meetings are continued, that your expert can speak to their knowledge around all things COVID-19. If a reporter is keeping the conversation, know they will likely focus on this topic.
- Keep your eyes on ProfNet/Help A Reporter Out (HARO) queries, long-lead media topics and heart-warming story potentials. It may be hard to believe, but there are some reporters who aren’t covering COVID-19. Freelancers and lifestyle reporters, especially, are working on longer-lead editorial content and your experts, tips and pitch ideas may be a fit for them. But, for long-lead contacts, just double check their last article(s) to ensure they aren’t covering COVID-19 before you pitch.
In addition, most media outlets are finding uplifting stories to help everyone cope with today’s current affairs. Feel free to still pitch any incredibly heart-warming and inspirational stories that can help give balance to doom and gloom.
Use this time to prepare for other proactive media relations efforts to be acted upon in the future. Many proactive media outreach efforts will need to be put on hold, but be sure to regularly keep an eye on the news coverage to see when it shifts and expands beyond COVID-19, as fatigue will set in at some point. Be prepared to begin pitching when the time is right (finalize your pitch letters, research the right reporters to target, and prep your messaging).
One more thing. As a reporter, nothing made me hang up the phone or hit the delete button faster than a pitch that “buried the lead.” Particularly during a crisis, make your outreach to reporters brief and to the point.
The partnership between health care organizations and journalists has never been more important. Your expertise – distributed through credible journalists – arms leaders and the public with the information they need to navigate this crisis. For questions, guidance or support with your response efforts, Padilla’s Coronavirus Response Team stands ready to help.
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