By Tamara Bodi

How to decide whether there’s room for your news or feel-good story in the middle of a global pandemic

You might say we are reduced to two main news streams during a pandemic: 

  1. Anything to do with the pandemic that’s legitimate, AND
  2. Feel-good stories (as they relate to the pandemic).

Gone are the days of the traditional media event (obvs). And for the time being we recommend you should set aside exciting announcements, any sort of celebratory amplifications, and for the most part, good old-fashioned (non-COVID-19) news, too.

Now, media and the public are looking for trusted information and facts that provide them with information that can help them stay safe (news) and feel better (feel-good stories).

If you’ve been wondering if there’s room for your story right now, we can help. In this article you’ll find our insights based on our newsroom successes and experiences from the past few weeks. We also provide a scan of what stories we think have been working and why, and tips on how far you might be able to stray from the Biggest Story In Decades. We’ve also devised a checklist to help you avoid some of the big gaffes we’ve witnessed so far.

First, a note about timing. Any PR practitioner will tell you the death knell of any news release or media advisory is issuing it at the wrong time. Safe to say that over one’s PR career, countless hours will have been spent strategizing (read: fretting) with oneself over real, arbitrary and unanticipated conflicts such as date, day of the week, time of day, holidays, major events, governments in session, #breakingnews, the proclivities of each newsroom, eclipses of any kind, Punxsutawney Phil, and that day’s horoscope. [???] 

Want to issue a news release on a Sunday evening? You go right ahead.

Newsrooms are busier than ever. They’re being tasked with multiple live press conferences online and news releases from health authorities and governments. They’re seeking every possible direct and tangential story angle in the community. Early on in the crisis, they wouldn’t have had the resources or time to think up the various layers of stories (and they shouldn’t have to – that’s our job). They’re further challenged by working from home (as their interview guests are), so the usual technologies and interview practices are gone.

Plus, the news cycle has expanded far beyond the regular eight-hour workday. If your news genuinely relates to COVID-19, safe to say it’s probably a go.

Recently, McKim worked with a client who had an incredible, and scary, news story to tell. As it was matter of public health, we worked over the weekend to develop a news release that captured her story. Then we made the bold decision to issue it on a Sunday evening (a total rookie move in pre-pandemic times).

By midday Monday, almost every media outlet in Winnipeg had spoken to her, with most newsrooms circulating their interviews to their national counterparts, and during the premier’s lunchtime news conference, several reporters questioned him on the issue. By end of day Monday, more than 3.5 million Canadians had heard, watched or seen our client tell her story.

“But my news has nothing to do with COVID-19.”

Like the first amphibious creature that tiptoed from the murky seas of primordial Earth, you may be wondering if you can venture into this yet-unknown territory. And don’t worry, we are too. It’s our job to think about these things. So before we get into yes or no, and the how, a quick history of non-COVID-19 media stories in the pandemic. 

Early in the crisis, our answer would’ve been a hard no. In the first days it was all about survival. We were panicked and watching Italy’s horror story unfold. We were unaware we had an iota of perceived control with this thing called “flattening the curve.” And we were waiting for the health authorities to announce Manitoba’s first cases of COVID-19.

As we were entering the fray and maybe exhaling a little, we noticed others were making some actual attempts at good old-fashioned news and announcements. They came across as meek entries at best and earned limited media play. Nevertheless, there were some decent moves and notable for the sake of this exercise.

A few weeks back, Storefront Manitoba and the curators of Cool Gardens were pleased to announce online the winners of Cool Gardens 2020a physical event that had to be cancelled. Polar Bears International made a soft entry with a new livestream of twin polar bear cubs — something that in earlier times may have been a frontpage pic. 

Even now, there seems to be little appetite for straight up news. The new Winnipeg Transit rapid corridor – a controversial $467.3 million project 44 years in the making – “quietly opened last week to no fanfare.” Tough times indeed.

If a tree falls in a forest…

Our best take on what non-COVID-19 news is acceptable to share right now is this: it’s your responsibility to share it – even if no one is currently listening. If you don’t share your news with media and/or the public, then you’re not doing your job. So ask yourself two questions:

  1. Would I be absolutely releasing this information if it wasn’t a pandemic?
  2. What’s the worst thing that will happen if we announce later?

If you said “yes” to #1 and anything but “nothing” to #2, then act accordingly. In the first, you’re determining that the information is definitively of value and in the public interest, no matter what’s going on outside. Some might call this due diligence. In the second, you’re determining there will be an adverse impact on your audience (and possibly you, your employer and industry) if the news is not made publicly available.

To put it another way: in the middle of a pandemic, are you going to open a multimillion-dollar rapid transit corridor that was created in 1976 without telling anyone about it? No. 

Instead, use the following to-do checklist:

  • Please tell it like it is. We’re only a few months into this and already empty phrases abound. This isn’t “an “unprecedented situation.” It’s a global health pandemic.
  • Pay attention to scope. If your news impacts three people on the top floor of your building, you might want to rethink. The public is hungry for information; give them something that’s meaningful to them, even if peripherally. 
  • Give the facts. With newsrooms on hyperdrive, ensure your key facts, messages and figures are highlighted and early on for easy skimming.

And DON’T be any of the following:

  • Self-serving
  • Self-promotional
  • Tone deaf
    • Mildly celebratory may be OK but nothing more
    • Inappropriate mood – cheery or indifferent to the times
  • Anticipative of mortality
  • Flouting wealth, success or opportunity in any way

We’ve seen some doozies – some early missteps. We wouldn’t work with you anyway, but, please trust us as your branding and media relations experts when we say: You don’t want to be the big jerk at the party who everyone hates. Not ever, and certainly not during a pandemic

A ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy local news cycle: The COVID-19 feel-good story

Once we started shifting from full-survival mode, we found ourselves in GIVE ME ANY PIECE OF HAPPY CONTENT MODE. And a funny thing happened: a rainbow of feel-good stories popped up. Kids’ paintings taped to windows? Check. Pluto giving us “two-leggeds” advice on the “the crisis with the toilet paper.” Check. Ryan Reynolds sweetening Hayley Wickenheiser’s public cry for PPE gear? Check check.

They related in some way to the pandemic, but they weren’t really news. They were good stories that weren’t really ‘news’ that became news because they became big.

Some news outlets started doing feel-good stories, too. Who can blame them? Now we have, for instance, six- and seven-minute CBC News online video compilations that, by the looks of it, are the handiwork of a bot set up to parse out news stories that contain words such as happy, fun, kids and crafts. You can see “Some good news from around the world” for yourself. The CBC is very good at many, many things, but packaging feel-good content is not one of them. 

Unrelated to COVID-19 (AKA, distraction):

Of course, if you want to (temporarily) escape COVID-19 stories and are looking for “good,” then there’s plenty of that on social media, which, by the looks of our smartphones is where we’re spending 116% more of our time these days anyway . There’s chicks in cupcake skirts on TikTok for Easter. Binging with Babish: Ben Wyatt’s Calzones from Parks & Rec , and the fact that we just celebrated Happy Jackie Robinson Day.

Safe to say “good” in these contexts is really short for “entertaining,” which is just another way of saying, “distracting.”

Distracting content most certainly has a purpose in the middle of a global health crisis. It gives us something nice to think about, to share with our friends, and a little bit of peace. 

In the end, you – the communications and media relations people – will know to first ask your gut – that thing you have grown to unquestionably trust. You will lean on that giant Rolodex in your brain that files away all news stories past and present – the one that’s been informing you of your courses of action since the day you started your career. This is what your boss pays you for, and why they ought to be listening to you. And we’re always here to help figure it out.

What have your experiences been? Share your thoughts anywhere at #mckimpr