Many event organizers are wondering how their communication strategies should evolve at a time when the appetite for travel and live events has decreased over COVID-19 concerns. Although we’re all still learning as we go, here are a few recommendations that could help guide your approach to public relations and marketing.
Don’t try to become a virology expert. Remember, you are an event organizer or marketer and don’t need to be an expert on the pandemic. It’s the job of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to let people know symptomatic information, and how to deal with treatment. Think about the audience for your event and what information they might want from you — specifically, your refund/cancellation policy, your on-site preparedness plan, what virtual tools you may have in place for those who can’t travel, and who to contact for questions. 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 on-site 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 novel 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 providing sampling-related content — for example, “taste delicious samples from hundreds of exhibitors” or pictures of attendees helping themselves to 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 social media posts and fear around the virus spreading at an event.
On the other hand, put an emphasis on content surrounding educational offerings, like keynote speakers and presentations, because it doesn’t give people a reason to associate that with 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 semi-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, talking about why the event is so important to them and the industry at large. Sometimes all that’s needed to convince a fence-sitter to register to see someone they respect and admire doing something.
Tell the truth. Attendee prospects will see through forced positivity. It is your responsibility to communicate realistic risk to them so they can decide whether or not to attend. Ultimately people just want to know the facts and how they can best protect themselves. Keep your messaging tight, on-point, and factual.
Tell them why. Most event attendees understand how event organizers are struggling with the difficult 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, and vital knowledge-sharing if your event cancels, communicate that.
Remind your audience that you care about their wellbeing and their livelihoods. One important consideration, though, is to ensure you consult with your legal team regarding the appropriate language to use, especially if canceling your event. Also, remember that you have choices beyond “go” or “no go.” Many organizers are using technology to accommodate remote audiences, postponing the event to a future date, co-locating with other events, and finding other creative solutions.
Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes is chief marketing strategist at mdg, a full-service marketing and public relations firm specializing in B2B events.
Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes spoke about event marketing during the COVID-19 crisis on a recent Freeman webinar, “Coronavirus and Its Impact on the Event Industry.”
PCMA has created a COVID-19 web page to help event professionals find reliable information about the outbreak and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared.”