“Communicating in a Time of COVID-19”

“Communicating in a Time of COVID-19” Webinar

COVID-19 is the first global pandemic in a social media world. This places unprecedented challenges on leaders at all levels in organizations of all kinds. Effective communication has never been more critical.

Watch the on-demand version of this program now, available here (URL is case-sensitive): https://apps.prsa.org/LpKW

Original air date: March 19, 2020

PRSA held a webinar on crisis communication best practices and their application to COVID-19, led by Helio Fred Garcia (@garciahf), executive director of the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership. He also teaches crisis management and crisis communication at New York University and Columbia University.

Below are key points from “Communicating in a Time of COVID-19,” taken and shared by PRSA Rochester board member, Kristin Tutino. You can follow the discussion online using #PRSAwebinars. 

Garcia explains that this pandemic is six different crises in one: 

1. A public health crisis 
2. A business crisis – cost and revenue impacts, operational disruptions, and HR 
3. An economic crisis 
4. An information crisis 
5. A competence of government crisis 
6. A social crisis 

Best practices to apply: 

Trust: Maintain (or restore - if we have to) the trust of our employees, investors, customers, vendors. Trust is a consequence of three things: 

1. Promises fulfilled (your mission) 
2. Expectations that have been met – typically those expectations are set by your stakeholders, but with COVID-19 it’s the government that is setting expectation of what we should do. Example: The cancelling of SXBW - on the recommendation of the government, SXSW chose to cancel. Once they did, other big events followed suite. That became the new expectation.  
3. Values lived 

If we disappoint, then trust is comprised. If we exceed expectations then trust goes up.  

Expectation management is critical. Manage the expectations of those who trust us. 

  • We must ask ourselves – What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation? 
  • You can answer this at a very granular level for each stakeholder group. Inventory them and ask them what they would expect. 
  • But there is a common expectation that applies to all stakeholders – and it’s shared by all stakeholder groups, and that is: 
  • They expect us to care! Show people we care. The more we do that the more they trust us. 
  • The single biggest predictor of loss of trust is the perception that you don’t care. And we must be persistent in demonstrating care for as long as the expectations exists. Overcommunication is critical! 
  • Silence is NOT GOLDEN – it’s interpreted that you don’t care! This also invites people to be critical and call you out.


First mover advantage – this is whoever is the first to define the crisis, motives, and actions. First movers control the interpretation of the event. 

  • Have a well-structured stand-by statement.
  • Sometimes you don’t have the first mover advantage. The next step is THE GOLDEN HOUR. An incremental delay can have greater-than-incremental impact. The longer it takes, the harder it is. 
  • Within 45 minutes of your crisis becoming public, you can show you care efficiently. But if we miss that 45-minute window, we lose considerable trust as people get to social media. Within the six-hour window – the evening news and the morning papers has it. The six-hour window will result in three days of bad visibility.  


The Four-Question Test. When should you engage your stakeholders? Answer these four questions. Answer yes to any, then we engage!  If they are all “no”, then we prepare and monitor. 

  1. Will those who matter to us expect us to do something?
  2. Will silence be seen as not caring or make us look guilty?
  3. Are others speaking about us and shaping the perception of us among those who matter to us?
  4. If we wait, will we lose the ability to influence the outcome?

Best way to engage your stakeholders: 

  1. Begin with statement of values, purpose or intent (should be consistent and align with all levels of the enterprise).
  2. Show you care – calibrate communication with empathy. Arrogance makes empathy impossible. 
  3. Avoid indirect language. No euphemism. (If an employee has the virus, you need to say that outright).
  4. Be honest. No misleading half-truths. If you don’t know something, you don’t know. Tell the truth.
  5. Convey a positive attitude while balancing urgency and the prevention of panic.
  6. Address all relevant elements of the problem. Health, business, economic, info, social – don't lose sight of the various dimensions of the crisis.
  7. Recognize that expectations are dynamic and changing – calibrated to actual current expectations. Don’t assume that today’s expectation will be the same tomorrow.
  8. Communicate at multiple levels. Your CEO, top-level execs, managers... all the way down the line. EVERYONE should be sharing the same message!
  9. Align statement of values, purpose, motive and intent – even as you adjust content across levels

Remember: People are feeling vulnerable! We need to show kindness! 


  1. Do we start sounding like a broken record? Expression of empathy is super important. It doesn’t get old. People need to hear it. But, you can change the language a bit and still align with your value statement. 
  2. Is it ok to send media pitches unrelated to the crisis? Right now, you’re unlikely to get coverage, but check in with reporters and ask if they are receptive to non-COVID 19 stories.  
  3. Employees that have to come to work – how do we show we care? Find a way to keep your staff safe. Open communication! And, offer safety precautions like providing hand sanitizer, masks, room to create greater distances between co-workers, etc.