Method Communications 14 Apr 2020 // 6:46PM GMT
Beth Haiken, EVP, Method Communications
Some crises strike like lightning; others build over time. Either way, fast or slow, the rules of engagement for PR and communications change quickly - and with the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation, clients and agencies together are trying to figure out the new landscape.
At Method, we work with a range of technology companies. What we’re seeing in the news landscape is a spectrum with clear ends and a big murky gray area in the middle. To negotiate it, it’s more important than ever that you use a critical eye when evaluating what is and isn’t news right now.
At one end is news clearly relevant to the crisis - we’re all trying to figure out what’s going on, and lots of journalists are looking for information. So, if you’re announcing something that’s directly relevant to the crisis (like a new at-home test, or that your company’s going to manufacture masks or ventilators), that’s news people writing about the pandemic actually want. If you have new and authentic data that’s revelatory (virus spread), insightful (how rural vs. suburban vs. urban Americans are feeling), and in real-time or close to it (this situation is moving so quickly that data that’s a week old is no longer relevant) that’s fine too, as long as the data adds something to our understanding and you proceed carefully, pitching only to people you have a reason to think would be interested and not following up aggressively if they don’t express interest.
Non-crisis related news
At the other end of the spectrum is news that’s unrelated to the crisis at hand. With longer-tailed crises like the one we’re living through, generally you reach a point where some reporters are focused on the crisis and others are keeping the lights on at business, technology, and industry trade outlets. Danny Crichton captured this perfectly in his March 18 article “Don’t be stupid by holding off on annoucing your funding round,” noting, “funding news sends a message of confidence and sustainability to the market and to employees."
A great example here is our client Storj, which had been working toward the launch of its open source decentralized cloud storage solution, Tardigrade, for more than two years. The launch was ultimately scheduled for March 19. A week prior to launch, the stories around COVID-19 began to heat up, and we began questioning whether the planned timing was right. After several rounds of strategic conversations, we determined that the launch couldn’t be delayed further. We researched and chose our reporter list of developer trades, open source and cloud reporters, and blockchain targets, carefully and pitched with our antenna out, ultimately securing coverage in key business and tech publications including Forbes and TechCrunch, which hadn’t previously covered the company.
But don’t push too hard here, and avoid aggressive follow-ups - a warning tweet from NPR’s Jeremy Hobson: “Dear PR people asking me if I've seen their pitches that have nothing to do with COVID-19: No.”
The murky middle
The large gray area in the middle is where it’s easiest to go wrong, and it’s here that being brutally honest with yourself is critical, per Barron’s Eric Savitz: “A little message of advice to my PR agency friends, of which I have many. We over here in media land are being bombarded with coronavirus-related pitches. Please think carefully before you hit the send button about whether what you are proposing is REALLY relevant to our readers. And please - PLEASE! - stop resending pitches a second time to get stuff to the top of my inbox. It is the moral equivalent of spam, and will not help your case. End of rant.”
Is your product REALLY relevant to the crisis? In the case of our clients Ada, 1Password, and PagerDuty, we decided the answer was yes.
Ada engaged Method to announce a notable funding round for its conversational AI technology - which can help companies meet soaring demands for customer service (which many companies are wrestling with) without hiring more staff. In a week of bad news, Ada was featured positively in WSJ, Techcrunch, Crunchbase, The Globe and Mail and more.
Our client 1Password has been fully remote for 14+ years and also offers a product that helps companies strengthen their digital security - which is relevant with legions of hackers targeting newly remote workers. To help companies deal with this risk 1Password decided to offer six months of its enterprise password manager at no cost. Method reached out to select reporters who were providing round-ups of resources, highlighting workers’ ability to securely access the accounts they rely on with one click. In the last week of March, coverage of the six month free trial appeared in a number of top tier outlets, including Forbes, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Inc., CSO, and more and CEO Jeff Shiner has been recognized as an expert resource on remote work.
With its focus on digital operations PagerDuty has insights on crisis management and the IT trends around the COVID-19 pandemic. Through its platform data, the company saw a surge in incidents (technology issues that if not fixed fast will impact customer experience) as more people were ordered to ‘shelter in place’ and companies grappled with the IT challenges of a distributed workforce. To support these companies (both small and large) as well as healthcare organizations, PagerDuty decided to offer their platform free for six months. The team secured top-tier business interviews for CEO Jennifer Tejada in Business Insider, CNBC Squawk Alley and Fortune, supported by additional coverage in ZDNet, CIO Dive, Datanami, DevOps.com and more.
Final thoughts and helpful tips
Even if you are doing something contributive, is it newsworthy? If you’re contributing $500 to the cause when other companies are contributing millions (or if you’re behind the news cycle in announcing), your news won’t make the cut.
These are strange times, friends - no doubt about it. Here are some tips to help. Be safe, be well.
Do your homework. This is always important but becomes more so in a crisis - you don’t want to pitch someone who’s just tweeted that a family member has just been hospitalized.
Prioritize quality over quantity - with so many reporters covering the crisis, consider packaging news as an exclusive, and then focusing on amplifying that story across social. And reconsider embargoes, because who knows what will be news in 10 days?
Skip Mondays - crises evolve quickly, meaning what worked two days ago won’t work today. Committing yourself to a Monday AM announcement may mean you look tone-deaf if the weekend news cycle blows up.
Past performance is no guarantee of future performance - in a crisis as severe as this one, there’s “before” and “after” so, in most cases, 2019 (or even February) momentum stats or data won’t be relevant. Now’s not the time to declare victory or crow about growth. Be careful about drawing comparisons and making projections, and don’t even think about pitching pre-crisis data.
Don’t try to be quirky or funny. The third week in March we saw a string of disbelieving tweets from reporters about people pitching them April Fools Day jokes and stories. Humor is fine among friends and family - we couldn’t get through tough times without it. But try to go broader and you’ll look clueless.
Show, don’t tell. If someone is telling you to pitch a story you don’t think should be pitched, it can be awkward to say no. Find examples of similar stories that have gone wrong or pitches that have been called out on Twitter and share those to illustrate your recommendation.
Be kind. People are stressed - from losing jobs to working from home with kids hanging off them to managing isolation of the sick. Try to be patient and human even when it's hard.