Why Storytelling in a Crisis Is Still Storytelling

By Alex Gnibus—Publicist, Grasslands

Like the rest of the PR industry, I’ve spent the past few weeks in a constant state of alert. There have been a few mind-numbing days I’ve felt too frozen to come up with anything. How to go on doing my job—telling my clients’ stories in the press—when there is a massive international crisis looming over every aspect of normal life?

Lately it has felt counterintuitive to continue proactive media outreach, especially for product roundups and lifestyle stories. It can also feel downright trivial when so many frontline workers are dealing with life-or-death issues right now (as we always say, it is PR, not ER). 

But I kept combing through the news and doing a lot of hard thinking about where my clients fit in with all of this. And I realized the stories are still there. Everyday life as we knew it may have come to a halt, but our clients sure haven’t. They are all still working their butts off to keep their businesses going and serve their communities as best they can.

The circumstances are different, but the question that we have always asked ourselves is still the same: How can we tell relevant stories?

Our world is shifting quickly, but that shouldn’t change how we think about crafting narratives that resonate. It was never a good tactic to brainlessly blast out pitches, and it sure isn’t now. We can move forward using the same strategic thinking that we were always using. 

As publicists, we are still adding value to the world by communicating the stories that need to be told. Media strategy in a crisis is still media strategy. Here is how I’ve been approaching my storytelling—and you’ll see that even as things change, PR best practices stay the same:

Understand the landscape when developing your media strategy in a crisis

Read the room! Just as you would in any scenario, keep doing your homework on the people you’re pitching. 

Different media outlets are covering things differently. Thrillist announced it would be covering COVID-19 through its usual lifestyle lens, but from the angle of stay-at-home activities—like frozen pizza reviews. Typical gift guides are still happening in consumer outlets (it’s not like Mother’s Day is cancelled!). Meanwhile, business reporters are focused on direct COVID-19 issues, and vertical trades like Adweek, TechRepublic and Packaging Digest are covering both non-pandemic and pandemic topics.

Just like in more normal times, it all depends on the individual and the outlet.

Be as authentic and transparent as you can

Your clients can be a source of clarity and leadership in a time when readers need it. If they are in a position to share their experiences with media, don’t miss out on the opportunity to give them that platform and potentially inspire others. I’d much rather read a company founder’s frank words about difficult measures they’re taking to address the crisis and know that they are doing their best to be honest and consistent. 

It builds trust and empathy. It also brings optimism.

Not every company will be able to speak to how they’re handling the crisis, and you’ll need to have conversations with clients about how you can best support them. But if you don’t tell your story, someone may tell it for you, and it’s empowering to drive your own narrative.

Find the stories that are still there, even if the usual way of doing business isn’t

Maybe your client had to reinvent their business model overnight by pivoting to curbside pickup and online ordering. Maybe they’re hosting virtual events. Maybe they’re closed entirely. Both national media outlets like Fast Company and local outlets like Denver Business Journal are profiling businesses that have been working through the challenges of the crisis, which means you still have opportunity to get quality coverage and drive customer traffic even if you aren’t business as usual. 

And even as things change, some stories stay the same. What aspects of your client can you spend more time focusing the spotlight on? It’s a good time to highlight your badass executives in long-lead profiles, do some product sampling and continue pitching other evergreen topics (like packaging—I always love a cool packaging feature). 

Research consumer trends. What do readers need right now?

Think through the lens of service journalism. People are looking for solutions, whether they’re a business owner looking to other founders for advice or a fitness fanatic missing their Pilates studio. They want ways to restore their normal routines. 

How can your brand help, even in the smallest way? 

This can be anything—DIY haircare tips while readers can’t go to their hair salon. Virtual wine tastings. A guide to edibles. Career advice for networking remotely. We’ve all seen the bread recipes. And my personal favorite: Do I Need To Wear A Bra? Experts Weigh In.

At the end of the day, we also want indulgence and comfort. Even if you don’t think your brand is particularly useful, it still has value. I know I haven’t stopped consuming large amounts of caffeine and chocolate just because things are a disaster. In fact, I am probably eating chocolate because things are a disaster. I’m still all ears for a good self-indulgence story, and so are reporters.

The pandemic may be a new communications challenge, but this is exactly the kind of challenge we’re here for. The work we are doing now is important for brands to connect with their audiences thoughtfully, responsibly and strategically. By continuing to do our jobs, we’re giving our clients a voice and driving the kind of stories that will make a difference—just as we have always done. 

PR pros, we’ve got this. 

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Feature photo: Markus Winkler via Unsplash