Public Relations and the Coronavirus – How will we be impacted?

Every industry will be affected by the impact of the coronavirus, including PR. There’ll be opportunity for some, and pain for others (image from BBC News)

Everywhere and everything is Coronavirus. Which is understandable, given how it’s changing every part and place of our world. But I wanted to talk about Public Relations/Communications and what this means for all of us.

The advent of the Coronavirus may be a business boost for some, but it be harder times for many in the industry. Here’s my basic run-down of what we should all expect.

Increased Demand for Crisis Comms and In-House People

If you’re working as a crisis communications consultant, you should have already had dozens of requests coming in for support (my general view of crisis comms is if you’re asking for help during a crisis, then it’s usually too late).

What’s fascinating is client-side demand for communicators. I’m seeing many government entities looking for senior people. My feeling is they’ve been blindsided by this, and they have little to no crisis planning. This is especially true for internal communications.

Prepare for Drastic Budget Cuts

Budgets are going to be cut, and agencies will feel this soon (I’m sure many already are). Contracts won’t be renewed, and clients will want to reduce the scope of work. I know the argument about PR being more cost effective than marketing, but this won’t have much of an impact on business leaders who need to save money for business continuity planning.

The Opportunity and the Challenge

It’s amazing to see how many companies have my details. I’ve received over 200 emails from companies, all listing what’s happening to the business. Everyone is asking questions, and this is a huge opportunity for communicators to support on messaging and positioning.

However, there’s a caveat here. Things are moving so fast that positions and messages can change overnight, especially for certain industries. I’ve seen senior communicators praise what their country is doing for the public one night, only for the government to announce a closure of its borders in the morning. Communicators have to be extra careful about positioning/messaging right now, and ensure that whatever is being conveyed is actually being put into practice.

We All Need Support

Whatever your role and your activity, you’ll need support. None of us have gone through anything like this before (SARS/MERS were the closest examples, but they were still regional). We will all need help in terms of what we are doing. And we will also need mental support.

So many people are relying on us to help them understand what is happening and what they need to do. Let’s do more to support one another. I’ve been encouraged by what regional and global associations are doing. It’s incumbent that all of us reach out to friends and colleagues in the industry to check on one another, and be there to listen and to help. This also includes giving to financial assistance programs run by the likes of the CIPR.

I want to wish you all the best of health right now. Stay well, stay safe, and stay the course. We will prevail.

How did Facebook fail with its Safety Check in emerging markets?

  
There are some times you really shouldn’t be making a distinction. Last week two tragedies took place, the first in Beirut and the second in Paris.

Others have written, much more eloquently than myself, on the raw emotion they felt after the two acts of terrorism – Beiruti blogger Elie Fares was one of the first to write about his anguish at Lebanons’s suffering being ignored by the West.

What is telling with the decision to activate the Facebook Safety Check was a comment by Alex Schultz, Facebook’s VP for Growth, who said:

In the middle of a complex, uncertain situation affecting many people, Facebook became a place where people were sharing information and looking to understand the condition of their loved ones. We talked with our employees on the ground, who felt that there was a need to fill. So we made the decision to try something that we’ve never done before: activating Safety Check for something other than a natural disaster. There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.

While Facebook’s intentions were to help those in need, the appearance to many in emerging markets such as Africa and the Middle East was that of bias. In effect, it was as if a life in Paris was worth more than a life in Beirut, or in Kenya or in Nigeria. This was compounded by Facebook’s decision to provide users with the option to upload the French flag over their profile picture.

Schultz’s comments that it was a human decision to activate Safety Check for Paris lead me to lose this question. Who at Facebook should have put forward the idea to use this service anywhere or everywhere where there is a crisis? My answer would be the communications and policy teams.

Communications in particular is the function that should act as the bridge between the outside world and the corporation, the part of the business that brings the outside in. That’s why, for example, Comms leads on issues and crisis management. Comms should have a robust understanding of the different stakeholder groups and how they impact the organization.

However, my take on Comms goes further. Comms should act as the conscience of the organization, and the Comms team should be able to advise when something is not right ethically. Unfortunately, Facebook’s team missed this opportunity here and instead turned what should have been an opportunity to play a vital role in helping inform families and friends re the safety oftheir loved ones into an example of unintended double standards (this was compounded by the Safety Check being used for residents of a Western capital rather than an Arab or African one, which in the context of colonialism also doesn’t look good).

Mark has said that Facebook’s policies will change and rightly so. Facebook is considered by many in emerging markets to be a tool for good, which is helping to promote positive change. It’d be a shame to see that opinion shift due to a lack of cultural awareness.