Many event organizers are wondering how their communication strategies should evolve at a time when the appetite for travel and live events seems to be decreasing due to coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns. We’ve provided a few recommendations that could help guide your approach to public relations and marketing here and we stand ready to help. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 619.261.9580 with inquiries.
Don’t try and become a virology expert.
Remember, you are an event organizer or marketer and don’t need to be an expert on the epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are the source for updated guidance about the disease, prevention and treatment. Think about the audience for an event and what information they might want from you, e.g. your refund/cancellation policy, your onsite preparedness plan, what virtual tools you may be in place for those who can’t travel, etc. Stay in your lane as an event professional.
Do try and become an expert in consistent, proactive communication.
Your prospective attendees want information and if they don’t get it, the silence will fuel rumors. For example, even if you don’t have an onsite preparedness plan, you can let your audience know you’re working on one. And remember that how you communicate matters. Rather than just making an announcement on Facebook when not all of your audience is on Facebook, use multiple channels. Make sure your coronavirus position is on the homepage of your website with a link to more information. Also, make sure everyone within your organization is aligned around consistent messaging.
Avoid showing or discussing content that might fuel concerns.
If you have an event in the food and beverage space, avoid sampling-related content, e.g. “taste delicious samples from hundreds of exhibitors” or pictures of attendees with their hands in open trays of food. It might also be best to avoid images of large crowds, international audiences, handshaking and hugging. Usually content like that is a draw, but right now it could encourage negative social media posts and fear around the virus spreading at an event. On the other hand, put an emphasis on content surrounding educational offerings, such as keynote speakers and presentations, because it will distract focus from the virus.
Pivot when you need to pivot.
Analyze your past performance data, current registration trends and the latest news. Do you need to shift from international marketing to marketing that’s more localized and regional? Are there segments of your audiences under travel restrictions? Monitor the situation on a daily (or at least, weekly) basis and adjust your tactical plan and marketing spend accordingly.
Use the power of social influence.
Encourage your exhibitors to contact their customers (and prospective customers) to let them know they will be exhibiting and invite them to their booths. Consider using testimonials of attendees and/or exhibitors, who are coming, that discuss why the event is so important to them and the industry at large. Sometimes all a fence-sitter needs to be convinced is to see that someone they respect and admire is attending the event.
Tell the truth.
Attendee prospects will see through forced positivity. It is your responsibility to communicate realistic risk to them so they can decide to attend. You may believe the media is overreacting or you may believe that this will be a pandemic of epic proportions in a matter of time, but ultimately people just want to know the facts and how they can best protect themselves. Keep your messaging tight, on-point and truthful.
Tell them why.
Most event attendees understand how hard event organizers are struggling with the decision of whether or not to cancel an event — if the decision is not made for them by local health authorities. If you believe the risk is too great to hold your event, communicate that. If you believe that the risk is manageable and that the industry (and the professionals it serves) would lose sales, revenue, momentum, opportunity, etc. if your event cancels, communicate that. Remind your audience that you care about their well-being and their livelihoods. One important consideration, though, is to ensure you consult with your legal team regarding the appropriate language to use, especially if cancelling your event. Also, remember that you have choices beyond “go” or “no go.” Many organizers are using technology to accommodate remote audiences, delaying, co-locating and finding other creative solutions.
*A version of this content is also appearing online for PCMA Convene and will appear in the April print edition.