COVID-19 crisis communication for small businesses: advice from a PR pro

Vancouver-based PR company Reformation is offering free consulting for Canadian businesses with 50 or fewer employees

Credit: Alyssa Dawson

Vancouver-based PR company Reformation is offering free consulting for Canadian businesses with 50 or fewer employees

There’s rarely any downtime in the world of public relations, but the COVID-19 pandemic is kicking crisis communications into overdrive for small businesses across the country. On Monday, March 16, Vancouver-headquartered Reformation made a big move: on Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin and its website, the PR firm began offering free consulting for Canadian businesses with 50 or fewer employees.

“First and foremost, we’re a small business,” says founder and principal Amanda Haines Lazeski. “We know the inherent risk that this crisis comes with, especially for small businesses—it really has the potential for massive devastation.”

So Haines Lazeski and her team of four staff decided to support other outfits by offering their expertise and support. “It just felt like the right time for us to step up,” she says. “We want to do our part to help these small business as much as we can, and make sure they have a business to come back to when this passes.” 

Since Monday, more than 20 small companies have contacted Reformation to seek its help with public relations, crisis communications, social media, messaging and content marketing. Haines Lazeski says there’s been plenty of variety among those that have reached out, which range from law offices to coworking spaces to education platforms. “At the end of the day, we are supporting people with their communications, but I think that the main takeaway we’ve had from this is being a support,” she explains. “And just being there to tell these folks, It’s going to be OK.”

Here are a few tips from the the folks at Reformation—and if you’re looking for more, they’re still offering free consulting. “These are difficult times for everybody, personally and professionally,” says Haines Lazeski. “I think that now is really the time to help, if you can.”

1. Hit pause on all planned initiatives

“This is not the time for pre-scheduled content,” Haines Lazeski says. She suggests taking a step back to reassess communication plans and priorities before you go wild on the “post” button. “Is now the time to launch that new product?” Haines Lazeski asks. “Will your brand succeed or suffer if you continue with your planned influencer campaign? Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions and put your plans on ice as the current situation remains fluid.” 

2. Communicate with your employees

Haines Lazeski recommends scheduling a pandemic-themed meeting for all staff where you can have an honest conversation about the effects of the virus (think products, services and operations). “Anticipate challenges and problems before they happen so you know how to handle them,” she says. Consider the potential outcomes—like supply chain disruptions, reduced hours or closures, and employee layoffs—and come up with a contingency plan for communicating them.

3. Say something—even if you don’t know what to say

Finding yourself at a loss for words? You’re not alone. “If you don’t know what to say to your customers about COVID-19, that’s OK—no one really does,” says Haines Lazeski. “But that doesn’t mean you should go silent.” She points out that because of quarantining and isolation, consumers are more active than usual online, and they want to hear from the brands they know and love. “Provide transparency around how you’re being affected, what you’re doing to support your staff and community, and if you’re pivoting in response to the crisis,” Haines Lazeski says. “And don’t be afraid to get vulnerable—a sensitive and well-messaged communication to your customers is likely to be met with major support.”

4. Take one step at a time

“Efforts to plan your content any more than a week in advance will probably be wasted,” says Haines Lazeski. She suggests mapping out a “loose, one-week content plan for social media, e-newsletters and blog posts,” updating or adapting it daily. “Be nimble, flexible and sensitive to the current situation, and remember that this isn’t forever,” Haines Lazeski suggests. She gives a shout-out to Superflux Beer Co., Say Mercy! restaurant and Sandhill Wines as B.C. businesses that have adapted particularly well. (Superflux opened an online store, Say Mercy! started a staff meal program, and Sandhill is now delivering for free in western Canada.)

5. Stick with it

Finally: persevere. “Stay in the conversation, because it will be a lot harder to leave and then re-enter when this is all over,” Haines Lazeski warns. According to her, now is the time to dig deep into your toolkit to figure out new and creative ways to make connections. “Take this as an opportunity to story-tell and share the type of content that you never had time to get to before,” she says. Talking about your business, brand and products is still OK, as long as you’re being sensitive. “That doesn’t mean you can’t find levity in the moment, either,” Haines Lazeski says. “If it makes sense for your brand, give your followers a much-needed laugh through a well-timed social post.”