Being Tested: Writing for THIS Crisis

As public relations professionals, we are being tested and I have bad news for you. Either we are failing as individual professionals or a disproportionate number of decision-makers have chosen to ignore our counsel. Either way, we have a problem.

I offer grace to all of us during the first weeks because all of us are victims. Unlike crisis for which we develop plans and on which we work, in some way we experienced and will continue to experience direct effects of this crisis in real time. From major losses to minor inconveniences, we are part of the story.

How do we effectively write during THIS crisis when it also affects us? We need to:

  1. 1. Acknowledge our different roles
  2. 2. Prepare for the future
  3. 3. Go back to PR basics

Acknowledge Our Different Roles

Real talk: Our personal and professional roles have changed in some way and will continue changing. Whether it is our role as a writer, parent, strategist, sibling, business-owner, employee, data analyst, home owner, media relations specialist, spouse, or graphic designer, our role has changed. It may have been amplified, negated, slightly adjusted, or forever altered. It has changed. Accept it. We must own our new roles and adapt to them. Grieve the loss, laugh about the change, express anger for what you miss, cope in any way you need. In the end, accept the change and choose to optimize your role as a PR professional.

Once we account for our own change, our professional role is to actively counsel organization leaders, partners, vendors, clients, and team members on how their roles have changed. Before we write during our crisis, all internal stakeholders must understand their roles.

Prepare for the Future

While second on the list of things to do, preparing for the future happens in conjunction with acknowledging our new roles.

Real talk: Our future is not what we envisioned it would be 40 days ago. Our community will lose many of our favorite small businesses. Companies might identify new goals, products, and/or target publics. Entire business models and strategies will become obsolete and new ones will emerge. People will lose jobs. People will leave jobs after personal life shifts. Cities and states will modify initiatives dictated by new budget numbers. No industry will be left untouched.

Are you thinking ahead in your writing now for the future? Are you thinking ahead to changing roles for your organization or client? How are you representing internal target publics and changes they could experience when you write? Do your social media posts complement your web content, emails, conversations and overall goals? Do you recognize that readers of what you write could be grieving in some way?

Identify what you know about the future. Be true to what you know in your writing.

Go Back to PR Basics

Real talk: Our grace period is over. It is time to lead and I implore you to embrace the opportunity.

Leaders in our industry did not just magically appear one day. Leaders earned it through years of study and work. Research, planning, implementation, evaluation, communication models, measurable objectives, communication theories, ethics, budgets, target publics, are what separate effective PR professionals from the hacks. Use your knowledge, skills, and abilities to examine your writing. Did a key target change with our current crisis? Does your communication serve the public interest? How does your writing move you toward the recently changed measurable objective?

Go back to Lippman’s Seven C’s of Communication and answer key questions before you start writing.

  1. 1. Clarity: Is your message clear or did you waste the first paragraph giving an unnecessary overview of the current situation, sharing the location of your workforce, or joking about video conferencing?
  2. 2. Content: Are you communicating what you know? Does your writing include information your target public can actually use? Have you done the research necessary to find out what content is relevant to your target public? Does your content provide an opportunity for two-way communication? Is your content representative of your organization or are you just regurgitating someone else’s content? Is your content truthful?
  3. 3. Context: Have you considered when and how your writing is being received? Is it possible that what you write is being read through the eyes of someone who is experiencing extreme stress or loss? Do you need to look closely at your target publics and think very specifically about the variety of variables related to them? Are you communicating with existing stakeholders in the same tone you communicate with potential stakeholders?
  4. 4. Channel: Are you relying on emails and web content only? Is your organization or client ready to do more than just lean on what you write? Are you expanding your written word to invite phone calls, video conferencing, and future face-to-face (even at six feet apart) conversations? Are you reviewing all the channels on which your organization or client is represented?
  5. 5. Continuity: What are the facts now that will allow continuity for your writing next month? Are you leading through reactions or through vision? Are you writing about layoffs the same time you are writing about a new hire? Have you kept the door open in your writing for the evolution of our crisis? Have you defined expectations for updates? Is someone associated with your organization or client sharing a message that is inconsistent with your writing?
  6. 6. Credibility: From whom should the message come? We are in crisis, are you writing through the voice of your organization or client’s CEO? Is there another key leader who holds more credibility within your organization or for your client? Is your writing true to our code of ethics? Are you being fair, creating a free flow of information, and truly advocating with your communication?
  7. 7. Capability: Are your writing with a human voice? Is your message coming from a leader who communicates empathy? Is there a more capable leader, donor, or team member who is part of the organization or client’s future? Did you do the research to define how your target public defines capable?

During any crisis, we need to be able to answer the above questions candidly before we effectively write for clients or our organization. During this crisis, we will continue to be tested. We must get it right in what we write.

Disclosure of information: I received an email from Jacki Falkenstein (PRSA Hoosier Chapter, Blog Chair) to write this blog after I posted a two-part tweet on April 7, 2020 related to the deluge of pointless emails I received related to the CARES Act. In addition to being an accredited public relations professional, I acknowledge my role as a small business owner. I acknowledge how both of those roles have changed and continue to change. I have a vested interest in strategic plans and communications executed correctly for my future. We all do.   

– Vanessa Stiles, APR is owner of Victory Sun, Inc.