Expert Insights

Predicting the News Cycle of an Event Like No Other in Modern PR History

April 2, 2020

By Dave Duschene, Executive Director, Corporate Communications and Ryan Richert, Executive Director, Global Media

Last week, one of our clients asked us a pretty poignant question.

“We know how to operate in a crisis around a single breaking news event,” they said, “but what’s the media cycle around this?”

Truth is, the COVID-19 pandemic is uncharted territory for modern-day PR practitioners.  Think about it. A momentous, single-day news event drives a spike in coverage, followed by a   gradual (but certain) return to normalcy.

The COVID-19 news cycle is quite different. It’s nearly all-consuming. And already short-staffed newsrooms are scrambling to redeploy staff to find and cover new pandemic-related stories hour after hour. We’ve seen many outlets redeploy their sports staffs to cover the outbreak, for example.

PR professionals must understand and account for this new reality before they hit send on that next pitch.

This is why we at Golin have created a model to help clients envision the current news cycle and how it could evolve in the coming weeks.  We call it the “COVID-19 Communications Curve.” This curve attempts to mirror the arc of the virus to anticipate what the general media climate will look like during each phase of the virus. We’ve labeled these phases Ramp Up, Peak, Post-Peak and New Normal.

In the US, health experts tell us that we’re approaching the second phase of this curve, with reported infections expected to peak in the coming weeks.

This means that the majority of media coverage will focus on the front-line battle at hospitals.  Depending on the industry, some beat or lifestyle reporters may be receptive to other stories.

But companies and brands that are literally protecting and saving lives – from producing tests to masks and ventilators – will be most able to break through into mainstream consumer media with announcements.

What does this mean if you’re not producing lifesaving equipment?  It’s important to return to the roots of effective media relations:

  • Target all pitching. This is not the time to send a mass pitch.
  • Soft sound ideas with a trusted contact. Rather than send a lengthy press release, summarize the idea in a couple of sentences and ask for feedback and interest from a reporter you know well.
  • Prepare for the other side of the curve. Our Golin colleagues in China tell us life is slowly returning to normal there. Media coverage is shifting accordingly.  So here in North America, now’s the time to think about forward-looking stories: What has your brand or company learned during the pandemic, and how will it change as a result? Do you have stories about heroic actions your people took during the pandemic? How will your business navigate challenges that still lie ahead? These are the types of stories we believe reporters and consumers will care about as the curve flattens.

No one can predict the precise timing of the virus curve, or whether we’ll see multiple curves. But adjusting what you communicate – or don’t communicate – in each phase to the media, your employees and your shareholders is critical.

As the conversation changes, you can avoid saying the wrong thing at the wrong time (or even the right thing at the wrong time) with careful planning and a thoughtful eye toward the COVID-19 Communications Curve.