When I was in middle and high school (long before social media), I looked forward to reading the Dear Abby and Ann Landers advice columns in the local newspaper. It was fascinating to read the pearls of wisdom that Abby and Ann offered their troubled readers to make things all better.
In recent weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed PR professionals into advice experts for our clients who want to know how to protect their brands and emerge with their companies intact. It can be tricky business to counsel a client facing extraordinary circumstances.
Here are five tips to consider when offering a client your two cents during a global pandemic or other high-stakes crisis:
• Are they looking for advice or blowing off steam? Sometimes clients need to vent. Be empathetic. "I'm so sorry you are going through this. I know it’s hard for you and your employees." It’s tempting, but don't provide false hope or promise that you can make their problem “go away.”
• Listen more, talk less. As the saying goes, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Engage in active listening—give the client your undivided attention, ask questions, and re-state what they’ve shared to make sure you understand their perspective and what they’ve done to address it before you jump in. Use what you’ve learned to develop a communications plan and then help put it into action.
• No judgment, no preaching. Your client knows full well their organization is facing unprecedented challenges brought on by COVID-19. The last thing they need is a “know-it-all” lecturing them about what they should be doing and adding to their stress. Stay calm, objective, and recommend steps to protect their brand, shore up their reputation, and help them communicate regularly and responsibly with various stakeholders, such as employees and customers.
• Stick to communications counsel, not business advice. A client may ask you, “Should I close my offices?” “Should I lay off part-time employees and contractors?” “Should I file Chapter 11?” You can help assess the ramifications from a communications perspective, but operational business decisions rest with the client. Whatever they decide, assure them you’ll create a comprehensive communications plan and develop clear, concise messaging that shares factual information with relevant stakeholders.
• Know when to back off. If a client doesn’t take your advice, don't push it. You might think they’re making a huge mistake, but there may be additional factors you aren't aware of. Pushing too hard may cause long-term damage to your relationship with the client. In the end, they're the boss. They’re under tremendous pressure and will have to live with the consequences of their decisions.
In the coronavirus crisis, or any crisis for that matter, the best advice we can give our clients is to respond calmly, promptly and frequently; correct the record when necessary; and above all, stick to the facts.
“The naked truth is always better than the best-dressed lie,” Ann Landers famously said. Sage advice that clients, and the communication pros who support them, should take to heart in these trying times.
Cheryl Stopnick is senior vice president of public relations and a crisis communications practitioner at Sachs Media Group.