Thought Leadership

Agency Executives Discuss Best Practices for Leading and Communicating During the COVID-19 Crisis

In a topical and wide-ranging discussion among PR executives, PRSA’s new Storytellers series debuted on May 12 with a webinar titled “Trusted Advisers: PR Agencies in a Global Pandemic.”

“As a profession, I believe that we bring order to chaos,” said Michelle Olson, APR, PRSA’s chair-elect and managing director of the Phoenix office of the Lambert PR firm, who also served as the panel’s moderator.

During the 60-minute session, panelists discussed how they are supporting their clients and employees during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as their approach to brand messaging and media relations.

For starters, leaders must make sure they are taking care of themselves. Just as you don your own oxygen mask before helping others in an airplane emergency, during the coronavirus pandemic, “First make sure you are whole as a leader, and then look around your agency and make sure the other leaders are prepared during this unprecedented time,” said Grace Leong, APR, CEO and partner of the Hunter agency in New York.

During the pandemic, “More than ever, brands are being judged by how they treat their own,” said  Richard Tauberman, executive vice president of corporate communications for MWW in Washington, D.C. He recommended that companies communicate a consistent message to audiences, while also being sensitive to their situations.

Will Collie, Edelman’s general manager for Southern California, also urged empathic communication. Edelman’s research shows that 60 percent of consumers are concerned about losing their jobs to the pandemic, he said.

Remaining authentic

As the news and official advice on how to protect public health continue to change — within a month, masks went from unnecessary to mandatory, for example — companies might be unsure how to respond.

“Look at the cultural conversation and make sure that clients are in the conversation when it’s relevant,” Leong said. “But don’t go in if it’s not authentic.”

When pitching stories, remember that “the media is hypersensitive to calling out brands that are tone-deaf,” Tauberman said. Carefully consider “the right time to launch a product or hold an event, even if it’s virtual.”

A company’s social media or digital channels might be better ways to communicate right now, Collie said. “If we’ve got a story to tell, does it need to be earned through traditional media relations?”

Panelists’ opinions varied on whether CEOs should serve as spokespeople during the COVID-19 crisis. According to Collie, “Consumers today don’t trust hearing from chief executive officers or chief communications officers, and want to hear from doctors instead.”

Tauberman said it depends on the sector: “If you’re in an essential business, it’s news now.” And Leong said her clients in food and consumer health are using their CEOs as spokespeople.

In videos and other communications, many companies are saying “thank you” to essential workers. But, as Olson pointed out, “The authenticity with which it’s done means the most.” Leong said one client wanted to produce an expensive “thank you” video while also laying off 5,000 workers. The conversation is turning toward how and when businesses will reopen, she said.

Leong also offered an encouraging message for students graduating from college and hoping to enter the PR profession: “The Class of 2020 is going to be remembered,” she said. Will COVID-19 be “the story that brings you down or the story that makes you stronger?”


Greg Beaubien is a frequent contributor to PRSA’s publications.

Photo credit: Brian mcGowan

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