Digital Public Affairs Campaigns in the COVID-19 Era

The spread of COVID-19 has turned our worlds upside down. We’re among many people adapting to the new normal (this post was written from a bedroom and a living room in two different states). As public affairs practitioners we face some fundamental questions: What happens to public affairs when no one goes out in public? What do we do without rallies, press conferences, and in-person meetings that bring people together?

In many cases digital tools will provide the answers – but recent weeks have also seen massive changes in the way these tools can be used. Below we’ve shared a few key considerations for when the business of campaigning goes online:

“Do people need to hear this now?” Many people’s worlds’ have been altered completely and fundamentally by the virus. Millions of Americans are facing uncertainty, unemployment, the very real fear of sickness, and potential long lasting financial impact. Unless your work is related to COVID-19, people’s priorities are on things other than your campaign and issue. Monitor the state of affairs in the relevant geographic area and look at third party sources of information such as Google Trends and polling (our daily Navigator polling is a great place to start) to see how ready people are to hear about something else. For national campaigns, consider phasing the approach by state to avoid being in-market with insensitive or ill-timed messages.

Organizing online. In-person events are a thing of the past, at least right now. In the meantime, you can use Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms to bring people together online. For example:

  • If you were planning to host a press conference, an interview, or a keynote speech, consider creating a Facebook event page, ask people to RSVP, and stream the event on Facebook live.
  • If you wanted to do an informal Q&A with one person from your organization, go live on Instagram and take questions from the audience, or field questions via Instagram stories.
  • If you are managing a coalition or want to engage community members, create a public or private Facebook group where people can talk about issues and share news and updates.

Go organic. Cooped up at home, people are spending increased time on social media. This means that your organic posts are likely to see an uptick in reach and impressions making them a valuable tool in filling the time where your advertising may be dark. However, be sure to acknowledge the reality that the people reading the posts may be living and keep the tone and content of the posts appropriate for the times. 

Post-paywall public affairs. Many outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Atlantic have removed the paywall from their COVID-19 related content. This means much larger potential audiences, but also different audiences. This increases the value of your traditional media relations operation (if your work includes a COVID-19 angle). If your campaign is ready to advertise, impressions from these outlets can likely be acquired more cheaply, but these impressions are likely to be reaching an a-typical audience for the outlet.

Reaching reporters while they WFH. In our new normal, people rely even more on their phones to stay up to date while they move around the house. Reporters are likely doing the same, so if you are pitching a story or trying to set up an interview, assume they are reading your email on their phone. This means short emails (2-3 paragraphs max) with attention-grabbing language in the subject line. It is also unlikely people will be printing anything, so instead of writing a press release, think of how you can share that information in the body of the email, with an attachment or a link to more information as needed. And make sure to check how your emails or documents look on a mobile device before you send them out.

Planning for the non-commuter audience. Our campaigns are often focused on reaching people where they spend the majority of their days, at work. This means geotargeting the key business districts of cities and particular office buildings. That has become much more difficult when more Americans than ever before are working from home. Switch your targeting to “People Recently in This Location” and add in “People Who Live in This Location” for large commuter neighborhoods. Layer data on top of wider geographic targeting to improve efficiency. Also remember that the commute itself has disappeared, so people are probably listening to fewer podcasts and more radio, digital radio, and music services.

Sound-off video. If you’re watching a video on your phone while your roommate is trying to watch something on Netflix, you’re consuming content in a sound off environment. Eighty five percent of all content in social media feeds is consumed without sound, and younger audiences react better to videos that allow them to do so. If you’re planning to produce a video soon, consider where and how people will be watching it. We recommend overlaying text onto the video so the words complement what people are seeing on their screen (Now This videos are a great example). More often than not, the captions you’re including in the video are more important than whatever you caption the post.