PR Planning for a Post-Coronavirus World

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While working for a major financial-services company in 2007, I was on a committee that did contingency planning for the possibility that a pandemic might migrate from Asia to the United States. I wrote a crisis-communications plan that anticipated scenarios such as citywide lockdowns across the country and consumers who couldn’t make their mortgage payments for months on end, and then gave recommendations for how our business could handle such situations.

I remember thinking as I wrote the crisis plan, “There’s no way this could ever really happen.” Of course, now it has, with the coronavirus. But within months we would shelve that contingency planning for a pandemic, as the company and the country reeled from the Great Recession of 2008. Today, I wish I had saved that pandemic plan.

As parts of the U.S. cautiously continue to reopen the economy amid the coronavirus outbreak, what should PR professionals expect and plan for now? And how should we plan our communications as people adjust to a new reality (not necessarily a return to normal) post COVID-19? Here are some trends and issues to consider in the weeks, months and years ahead:

Anticipate more COVID-19-related crises.

As communicators we should prepare for more ripples and aftershocks from COVID-19 in the coming months: disruptions to the U.S. food supply, a paralyzed housing market, and more quarantine orders for workers and students, to name a few. Scientists are especially worried that another outbreak of coronavirus could occur when flu season starts again in November. People suffering from the flu could be more susceptible to COVID-19. 

Action item: Build a PR plan for fall/winter now. Recommend flu shots for all employees.

Build trust.

Coronavirus has quickly changed many aspects of our lives — how we work, shop, take vacations and go to school. As people start returning to airplane flights, restaurants and shopping malls in the coming months, businesses will have to earn the public’s trust by demonstrating that the proper precautions have been taken.

Action item: Organizations should plan for how they will gain trust when  their day-to-day practices are questioned.

Prepare for more pandemics.

In the last 20 years alone, a number of viruses have broken out in different countries around the world: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, another kind of coronavirus) in 2002; H1N1 “swine flu” in 2009; Ebola virus in 2014–2016; and now coronavirus disease 2019, better known as “COVID-19.” 

Action item: As PR practitioners, we need to help prepare our organizations for the next pandemic, recession or other seismic event. One way to do that is by formalizing policies that have been put in place during the current coronavirus outbreak. 

Expect technology to intrude further.

While forcing us to stay home, the coronavirus has also made us more dependent on technology. Why travel to an in-person meeting when we can meet through an internet video conference on Zoom? Why go out when we can order anything online and have Amazon, Costco or our local grocery store deliver it to our door? Why visit a doctor when we can schedule a tele-health appointment instead?

Rather than physically attend trade shows, maybe we’ll just have our digital avatars appear at virtual trade events such as the Thin Air Gear Show, a virtual conference for the outdoor industry that will host up to 400 brand exhibitors and 1,000 members of the media this June. 

Action item: People like to interact with one another in person, but they’re also realizing the value of interacting remotely (and the cost savings that result). What can our organizations do now to introduce or enhance technologies that will calm the fears of customers, employees and other stakeholders, and make their lives easier? 

Forecast a more frugal America.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, in 2007 the average savings rate for U.S. consumers was 3.7 percent. After the Great Recession, that rate climbed to 6.5 percent in 2010, and by early 2019 it had reached 8.2 percent. After the economic repercussions of COVID-19, Americans will likely save at even greater rates to prepare themselves for the possibility of future mass unemployment.

As reported, Laurence Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University, found that 30 percent of Americans have zero emergency savings, and only one-fifth have enough money saved to cover them for six months. With tens of millions now out of work from the national coronavirus shutdown, we will likely see a return to frugality among Americans, which could delay restarting the economy. Watch for more Americans to grow their own food, stay in their current homes longer, and shop at thrift and second-hand stores.  

Action Item: Since it could be years before Americans start to loosen their purses and wallets, businesses should think now about how to adjust to this new reality — not just for the short term, but for three-to-five years from now. The same advice applies for business-to-business industries, as more companies might decide to put off buying new equipment and refurbish old equipment instead.

Foresee young generations scarred by the experience.

Seismic events such as war, economic recession and terrorist attacks can have profound and lasting effects on young people. Children are resilient, but the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented and might leave an unprecedented mark on kids.

With many states now under stay-at-home orders, school kids are isolated from their friends, and some parents are relying on YouTube, Netflix and video games to “babysit” them. Meanwhile, students just graduating from college are entering the worst job market since the Great Recession. 

Action item: Businesses that market to children and young adults need to be empathetic to the anger and lack of trust now building within them from school shootings, the high cost of college, the lack of jobs, climate change, etc. These generations will be more likely to expect government and big corporations to help them when the next crisis hits.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic will ripple through our lives, culture and economy for years to come. As curious, consummate public relations professionals, let’s be prepared and start seeing around the corner to what’s coming next. 

photo credit: zfl

Return to Current Issue Crisis Management | June 2020
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