A few things to consider before pitching a COVID-19 story

I’m not an expert in crisis management, but I can recognize bad taste when I see it

In recent weeks, the novel coronavirus has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives, from the work we do, to the food we buy, to the simple things we’ve tended to take for granted, like leaving our homes and socializing.

Even the stories I write that are ostensibly not about the virus are always — somehow — about the virus.

When we look back at this moment in time, the sheer ubiquity of the topic will, perhaps, be its defining characteristic. And while we flirt with notions of escapism, the fact of the matter is that we’ll never fully get away from COVID-19 until it is completely eradicated.

Among the constant and mostly unwanted reminders in my own life is my work inbox. I’m being pitched coronavirus-related stories dozens of times a day at this point, running the gamut from the tasteful and thoughtful to the cringe-inducing. In the early days of the outbreak, when I first began receiving these pitches, they all sort of felt as though they were being done in bad taste.

Pitching against tragedy is not an uncommon practice in public relations. Like online content generators that juice SEO with trending buzzwords, the phenomenon is a common one amongst many PR reps. And frankly, by the time the realities of COVID-19 came to our shores, the isolated act of including references to the pandemic in a pitch no longer felt crass in the same way. COVID-19 is our reality now, and will be for a while. Perhaps it follows, then, that it will also bear mentions in the pitches that cross our inboxes.

I’m not an expert in communications or crisis management. And the extent of my work in PR was a few months fresh out of college, when I took a freelance writing gig to help keep my head above water in New York City. I hated it, and, frankly, I was probably extremely bad at it.

While I know enough now to recognize a distasteful pitch when I see it, I was curious how people in the public relations industry navigate the question. I reached out to handful of reps I’ve generally had a good experience with and asked how they best do their work when the world around them is falling apart at the seams.

Evie Smith (Founder/CEO, Rebellious PR)

I think stopping to ask reporters how they are doing and what can you help them with is just being a good human. Think twice before hitting send on that big mailmerge. So much of PR is already tacky, don’t be that guy to spam a bunch of people during a mass crisis.

Tim Smith (Founder, Element PR)

It’s important to show some goddam empathy. Reporters are just as likely to be affected by a crisis as other professionals. Crises such as Hurricane Sandy and 9/11 impacted the media industry particularly hard. I’d also check see if there are Twitter, Instagram, etc. updates from the writer that will provide some context to their situation.

PR Director at a major tech company 

It is never okay to tailor a “pitch” to a disaster or tragedy. If your company is prepared to make a real, tangible and significant commitment to provide aid to the communities and people effected by the disaster/tragedy — then it’s not a pitch, it’s an announcement to inform those communities that aid is on the way and inform the people effected how they will benefit (where should they go, how do they sign up, how do they request aid, who qualifies, etc.). This should be done in partnership with local government officials (and local businesses perhaps too), before commitments are made publicly — each community is unique, and what they need in a time of crisis will be different than the next.

Gabie Kur (SVP, WE Codeword)

For the most part, the best practice is to stay mum. Unless you’re adding value or unique information to the situation, a crisis is not a time to capitalize with your marketing efforts. One of the only instances we feel comfortable proactively pitching is when we have proprietary data that, in some way, helps provide valuable insights to any given situation. Otherwise, you should just wait for the dust to settle.

Kelly Boynton (VP, Access PR)

Pitching anything related to COVID-19 is a bad move unless it’s truly innovative, groundbreaking news. If your client does have data or a solution to share that can truly help reporters, consumers, businesses navigate this time, pitch the appropriate reporter in a thoughtful and respectful manner. While this should always be the case, comms professionals must keep in mind the reporter on the other end of the email/phone. You don’t know what their current situation is. Be considerate, be patient, be human, be helpful.