How My APR Helped With COVID Crisis Planning
By Jillian Henze, APR
In early 2020, national media attention focused on Washington state when more than 50 residents and staff of a nursing home in the city of Kirkland contracted the new coronavirus — the first known outbreak in a long-term care facility.
In January 2020, Washington was the first state to report a confirmed case of COVID-19. The following month, it was the first state to announce a death from the virus. As a result, Washington’s restaurants and hotels were among the first in the country to shut down.
But few expected Gov. Jay Inslee’s Twitter announcement — made on a Sunday in March — that he was shutting down all of the state’s restaurants.
Washington’s hospitality industry is the largest private employer in the state. Within a month of the governor’s announcement, 100,000 of our hospitality employees were out of work. Business owners watched their dreams die and their savings go down the drain.
More than ever, hoteliers and restaurateurs needed their state hospitality association. And as a leader in the communications department at the Washington Hospitality Association, I needed my Accreditation in Public Relations from PRSA. The credential has transformed me from a PR technician hammering out press releases into a strategic thinker, planner and counselor.
Strategy addressed how we would help owners of hospitality businesses understand the impacts of coronavirus shutdowns and make the best decisions. To educate them and encourage them to act, we launched an integrated-communications campaign to all Washington state restaurateurs and hoteliers.
Our team’s tactics included a mission to find accurate information and pump out 48 webinars in a year — while also juggling countless media inquiries, producing advocacy videos with beloved restaurateurs for social media and even conducting a statewide survey of businesses to craft a story for the public about the impact of the crisis on the hospitality industry.
We also designed a searchable website, a “Coronavirus Resource Guide Knowledge Base.” For more than a year, we posted four to seven new articles for businesses owners every day on the site.
My Accreditation in Public Relations helped me be the calm in a year-long, sustained crisis — and to provide results for our industry during its darkest hour. Each letter in the word “calm” represents something an APR can teach us:
C: Clear-headed leadership
Part of the APR exam specifically pertains to managing issues and crisis communications. During the COVID-19 crisis, my accreditation in public relations gave me the confidence and the clear head I needed to help my organization tackle whatever might come its way.
I asked the team daily: “What is the problem we’re seeking to solve?” I wanted to ensure we were throwing the right solutions at the accurately defined problem.
A: Action first
My APR gave me a bias for action that served me well in managing a crisis: the ultimate call to action. The governor shut down all Washington restaurants on a Sunday via Twitter with very few details. OK, what is my team going to do about it?
It teaches us to identify the most immediate problem in a crisis, to answer all related questions and to set measurable objectives.
Our goal was to be the primary source of information for our members about how the coronavirus was affecting their businesses. Whenever the governor held a press conference, we would issue an accurate, expertly sourced news alert to our members within two hours.
Neighborhood restaurateurs used the information we provided them to make heartbreaking decisions — whether to close their doors forever or risk everything to keep their workers employed. Watching family owned businesses go under took a toll on our team. But we doubled down with information to help more of our members survive the crisis.
L: Lead with strategy
Knowing that we had a strategic plan informed by research gave calm and hope to my staff — and to our organization’s leadership.
Our plan was so effective that when the first Washington state business reopening was announced in the spring of 2020, our association broke the reopening news and was the most-referenced source of information in statewide media stories and on social media.
Planning strategically during a year-long crisis requires PR practitioners to stay flexible. As the situation evolved daily and weekly, new health regulations for businesses repeatedly changed the needs of Washington restaurants. Strategic plans with shorter timelines and clear, measurable objectives showed us when we had solved the problem of the day — and challenged us to create fresh strategies to tackle the next problem.
M: Measure and track
My APR taught me to spend time in the research portion of strategic planning so when I’m implementing my strategies and tactics and evaluating at the end of the program, I actually know whether the work was successful and whether we can call it a day.
We found that because we had acted early, our members engaged with our communications initiatives at high rates. For example, rates of recipients opening our eblasts more than doubled, from 21 percent to 45 percent, and earned 54 percent click rates. Our webinar attendance grew by 900 percent.
We also developed a system to assign monetary value to our communications efforts. We estimated that we had provided $6.5 million worth of communications resources to our members in 2020. We went from receiving about one media inquiry per week to an average of seven per day. We held press briefings and quickly positioned our CEO as the voice of Washington state’s hospitality industry. None of this could have been achieved if we had not written a strategic plan.
In January 2021, at the one-year anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Kirkland and the governor’s decision to close our restaurants, Washington’s hospitality industry remained in crisis. We were just one of two states in the country where indoor-dining capacity was limited to 25 percent. In the coming days, we will finally open our indoor dining at 50 percent capacity.
Nevertheless, the Washington Hospitality Association is making positive steps forward, securing $2.29 billion in relief for our Washington state hospitality businesses.
As we enter year-two of this pandemic, we face new challenges that require strategic thinking and planning. I am hopeful we will soon prepare our industry to reopen and recover. The principles of the APR will help us create fresh ideas and innovative approaches so we can gather in our favorite restaurants once again.