4 Ways to Pivot When a Crisis Threatens Your PR Goals
By now, we're probably tired of terms like “adapt” and “pivot” to describe how we navigated the early days of perhaps the greatest crisis of our generation — the COVID-19 pandemic. From helping our kids transition to at-home learning to figuring out how to migrate everything from book groups to band rehearsals onto Zoom, the last two-and-a-half years have demonstrated just how flexible and creative humans can be in the face of adversity.
Adaptation has been the name of the game for the PR world, too, during this era of change. As the leader of communications strategy at one of Chicago’s largest education nonprofits — Communities in Schools of Chicago — I had to grapple with how to maintain strong brand awareness, even as the rules of engagement for developing impact stories radically shifted in response to the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, our PR work relied heavily on sharing the success stories of the students our program team served through one-on-one engagement. We pitched local media to do in-person interviews with young people who, with our support, overcame significant obstacles in their personal lives to improve their attendance and grades. We posted pictures and videos on our social media platforms of proud students and families on graduation day. And our collateral – brochures, annual reports, webpages – was full of vibrant images of our young people and the teachers, principals and community partners we collaborate with. These images weren’t just feel-good moments for our network of supporters. They were testimonials of our work and impact.
When schools in Chicago and the rest of the nation went remote for public-health reasons in March 2020, all that rich content was suddenly much more difficult to gather. Without students and our team members in schools, scenes of our impact were reduced to screenshots from their virtual support. It didn't take long for the novelty to wear off.
Once it became clear the pandemic would be an ultra-marathon requiring a new approach (as opposed to a sprint), I called a trusted PR consultant to strategize how we would pivot.
Here are some of the strategies we put in place to rise to the challenge of the COVID era.
1. It’s an Opportunity, Not a Crisis
The pandemic was an opportunity to broaden the messaging about our organization's work and impact. If it was more challenging to tell our usual student stories, then we should start emphasizing other aspects of our work — at least until the world normalized a bit. “What other insights and expertise could we offer?” the PR consultant asked. “How could we distinguish our work in new, meaningful ways?”
After taking stock, we both realized there were a lot of directions we could go.
2. Assess Your Expertise
For starters, our organization, through its long-time partnership with almost 200 public schools across Chicago, had deep insights into the evolving needs of students and families across the city as the pandemic's grip tightened. That was something that we figured many people wanted to learn more about. In addition, many members of our organization are mental health professionals with many years of practice in the field. There was a growing awareness that the social isolation of the pandemic was having significant consequences on children and families, and we could offer an informed perspective on the topic.
3. Even Amid Crisis, People Long for Success Stories
At a time when so many people were feeling powerless, it was important to communicate authentic stories about even the small wins we were experiencing. We worked more closely than ever with our community partners to get essential resources like health, hygiene, and school supplies into the hands of students. We worked with families to help them access free wifi and make sure they had the technology they needed for at-home learning.
4. Identify Your Go-To Speakers
We realized we had a deep bench to turn to when interview requests came in. Our organization's CEO provided a big picture perspective on the challenges facing our schools and students, and outlined steps our organization was taking to respond. Our chief operating officer, who also happens to be a Ph.D.-level clinician, became a regular guest on TV and radio shows to offer advice on how parents and children could cope as the pandemic and remote learning wore on. And our program staff, who worked directly with young people, offered informed insights from the frontlines on the needs of our young people and the creative ways they could be supported.
More than two years later, it's accurate to say that our hunches were right. After crafting updated press releases that outlined the expanded list of topics we could speak to, news outlets began seeking out our experts — not once, but frequently. Between April and June 2020 alone, our organization was featured in a dozen stories that ran in various TV, radio and print outlets in Chicago, the nation's third-largest media market.
Topics ranged from offering tips for parents juggling work and home-schooling responsibilities to helping the public better understand the toll the pandemic was having on students, families and teachers. In time, reporters asked if we had insights on addressing mental health of employees, or how to fundraise amid a pandemic. We became a go-to source for media, thanks to our prepared and quotable in-house experts.
In June, Chicago students completed their first, full year of in-person learning since the 2018-19 school year. It was an interesting year of PR for our organization, one in which we continued to earn coverage for our expertise in areas like mental health and HR, while also securing coverage for more traditional pieces about the students we work with inside schools.
Moving forward, I expect that this expanded repertoire of pitches for winning news coverage will become a hallmark of our PR strategy. If your organization's marketing and communications strategy has hit a wall as the pandemic era drags on, it's not too late to pivot. Take stock of your own organization's core competencies and leverage your full range of expertise. And then start pitching them far and wide to increase your brand awareness.