Mark Henricks 14 Apr 2020 // 6:41PM GMT
Like all news, tech-focused publications have been focused on COVID-19 over the last few weeks. But alongside news about Zoom, Amazon, and Slack, there are headlines like: Wyoming Confronts Its Wind-Powered Destiny (Wired), N3twork announces $50 million fund to grow mobile games (VentureBeat), and OnMail is a new privacy-focused email service from the company behind Edison Mail (The Verge), among others.
For B2B companies, there’s a lot to consider in today’s world. Not only is more critical than ever to pitch the right targets, but there’s a more fundamental question of: should we reach out at all?
“The world has changed dramatically,” says Matt Stewart, executive vice president at Method Communications. “COVID-19 isn’t your typical crisis — the UN chief called it the biggest challenge since World War II. It’s touched everyone, everywhere, upending how we live and what we care about — and thus what the media is covering. Ignoring that transformation makes brands seem at best irrelevant and at worst actively callous.”
Yet, some brands have found ways to keep their media strategies on track through the turmoil. Cloud storage startup Storj Labs considered delaying an important launch scheduled for March 19, but ultimately decided it couldn’t wait, says Dan Sorensen, Storj’s communications director.
“Even though we thought we would receive less coverage because of the announcement, we saw that most of the reporters covering cloud storage weren’t covering COVID and were still covering hard, timely news,” Sorensen says.
Even as COVID news was reaching feverish heights, Storj’s launch of a decentralized object storage platform for the enterprise market was covered in Forbes, Tech Crunch, SiliconAngle, and TechTarget among other publications. “In the end, we exceeded our goals, and the launch was received well by the reporters we talked to and our community,” Sorensen added.
‘We Have a Product that Speaks Directly to the Pain’
Some companies are well-positioned to add context and expertise around COVID-19. For instance, AI-enabled chatbot company Ada announced a funding round that presented its technology as a way to help companies cope with crisis-driven customer service crunches.
“We have a product that speaks directly to the pain so many companies are experiencing in the throes of coronavirus,” explains Ruth Zive, Ada’s head of marketing. Several business and technology publications embraced Ada’s news as a rare positive during a time of seemingly relentless bad news.
Digital management operations platform PagerDuty attracted widespread big-league coverage of its brand in the heat of the crisis, including interviews with the CEO. Its tactic was to offer reporters internally-generated data identifying the industries most impacted by the shelter in place orders.
“The data shows the kind of companies that were under stress — retailers, online education and videoconferencing,” says Carolyn Guss, vice president of corporate marketing for PagerDuty. “That’s a COVID story, for sure. It’s about business and how behavior is changing. It was really valuable information for them.”
‘Is Your Story More Important than Gov. Cuomo’s Daily Update?’
Calling a halt to all media outreach is a legitimate tactic to consider during a COVID-sized crisis. “The first question is: do you really want to?” Stewart says. “Is your story more important than Gov. Cuomo’s daily update or new advice from the CDC on wearing masks?”
But many companies are taking a balanced approach.
“I’ve been surprised at the amount of media opportunities,” says Sarah Frueh, director of communications for digital lending platform Blend. The company has moved forward with its “Redefining digital transformation” content series, publishing part four on March 18 that’s focused on avoiding the pitfalls of point solutions.
Frueh says Blend is being selective on incoming media opportunities as well. “If it seems like we’re not the right people to comment, we’re passing,” she says.
Whatever the source of the media opportunity, relevance is a critical touchstone at times like these. “Move forward with insights or initiatives that are hyper salient to COVID,” advises Stewart. “If you’re making ventilators, you’re relevant; if you’re helping front-line workers or people who’ve lost their jobs, you’re relevant.”
Communicators rank empathy as highly as relevance. “All communications professionals should be sensitive to the topic at hand, take it very seriously, have empathy with those who are being impacted, and don’t do anything that could be viewed as being ambulance chasers,” Sorensen emphasizes.
"Reporters are also open to positive news -— something good to report on when everything else seems to be doom and gloom," says Falguni Bhuta, head of communications at the game-based learning platform Kahoot. "So if it’s a company raising money, or providing critical services for free during a crisis, giving away products or services to help people cope with the crisis or if your company is hiring -- that’s definitely interesting."
Internal communications have an important role to play as well. “It is also worth reevaluating your expectations and those of other team members,” Sorensen says. “You should also be listening to reporters themselves—like on Twitter and other platforms—and make adjustments to your strategy accordingly.”
‘Pause Declaring Victory For Now’
Now isn’t necessarily a time to go dark. But hard sells and some other messages probably are best not shared under these circumstances. “Pause declaring victory for now,” Stewart suggests. “There are a lot of people hurting physically, mentally and economically who don’t want to hear about your amazing YoY growth -- plus, last year’s growth is irrelevant now.”
And whatever you do, go gently. “Don’t force it,” Frueh advises. “If you are not in any way related to what is happening, there’s no reason to try to insert yourself into a crisis that you have no part in.”
Now might be a good time to pull back on initiatives that could work as well another time. “There’s so much content out there. We wanted to make sure that some of our evergreen content was saved,” Frueh says. “If we put it out there right now, it would just get lost.”
Bhuta recommends being especially cautious of surveys taken before the pandemic. "The results from that survey would be completely irrelevant today, and unless you can add in research that pertains to the new reality, think twice about releasing that announcement."
And while there’s likely to be a certain amount of gallows humor in any crisis, Stewart urges caution concerning anything that could be seen to make light of the situation. “Understand people are in pain and will be healing,” he says. “April Fools’ Day was cancelled this year and humor will be a sensitive area for quite some time. Kindness and bringing people together — virtually for now — will be paramount.”
‘It Will Be a Little Bit Different’
At some point, brands that are being quiet now will want to speak up. Stewart suggests that the time will be when shelter in place orders are lifted and professional sports starts again. Another benchmark might be when sufficient numbers of recovered COVID patients return to work, Frueh guesses.
There’s no question at all about anyone’s ability to put a firm date on when things will get back to normal. It’s a moving target, at best. Frueh suggests, however, that waiting a little too long might be better than moving a little too early. “There’s a lot less risk in waiting and seeing how things unfold,” she says.
Another perspective holds that, rather than waiting for things to get back to normal, brands wait only long enough for the way things are to become the new normal. “Give it another two or three weeks and we’ll start talking normally,” Guss foresees. “Pretty quickly we’re going to start acting as we normally would, but with an adjustment to the messaging.”
PagerDuty is planning another product launch in the not-too-distant future. “It will be a little bit different,” Guss says. “But we’ll go ahead with that product launch.”
‘Impressions Made Now Can Last a Lifetime’
It seems reasonable that, for the next several years at least, media relations like other spheres will be divided into pre- and post-pandemic. “Living in denial is foolish,” Ada's Zive says. “COVID-19 has changed virtually everything, at least for the short term, and potentially for the long term. So a communication strategy that ignores this altogether will be received as inauthentic.”
But it’s possible that, in addition to the tragedy and destruction wrought by the virus, this episode will also reveal a positive side for brands that navigate it skillfully. “The moves companies are making now will inevitably be remembered,” Frueh observes.
Stewart agrees. “Impressions made now can last a lifetime,” he says. “We always remember brands that were there for us in crunch time — and those who weren’t. Be extra careful and kind now and you can win customers for life.”