How PBS is navigating the COVID-19 crisis

The television network that serves 330 member stations around the country offers some key insights on how to prepare your organization for crisis and adapt to changing work requirements.

PBS is no stranger to reputation management and crisis response.

The network is often in the news in recent years as several federal budgets have tried to get rid of funding for the organization that helps bring local television service nationwide.

Jennifer Rankin Byrne, vice president of corporate communications for PBS, shared her takeaways on crisis and reputation management during Ragan’s Speechwriting and Public Affairs Virtual Conference on March 26.

Byrne says that it’s helpful to lean on your history when trying to combat misconceptions about your organization.

“We have 50 years of history making differences in peoples’ lives,” she says. “We like to call upon that in reminding people about the importance of PBS.” Examples for her organization include famous faces like Mr. Rogers, characters from Sesame Street and TV chef Julia Child.

“Everyone has their own PBS story…and we try to tap into that,” Byrne says.

The current crisis

How has PBS used these reputation management and storytelling techniques in the current COVID-19 crisis? Byrne says that it’s important to start from the inside and think about your key audiences.

For PBS, there are four audiences: “our employees, our member stations, our board of directors, and our viewers.” When trying to engage these publics, Byrne says the key is to communicate frequently and early.

“We knew we had to get in front of this with our stations and our employees,” she says. “Since then, we have had a steady cadence to let these audiences know what our plans are and how we will continue to serve our mission.”

Lean on top leaders

Byrne says that PBS is fortunate that CEO Paula Kerger has taken an active role in communicating about the current crisis.

“From the get-go she wanted to have a say,” Byrne says, adding that she “definitely recommends getting senior leadership on board.”

PBS has been able to use its CEO during every step along the way, from cancelling important spring conferences to talking about how it would embrace telework. “She’s really been the voice of calm and reason,” Byrne says, “… to say ‘we are on top of this.’”

There are other leaders who should be talking to your internal stakeholders, too.

Byrne says that PBS has leaned on its HR leader for tactical messages about teleworking or benefits and special accommodations.

Diversify your channels

Byrne also recommends getting creative about how you are trying to reach internal stakeholders. Even if your workforce is comfortable with email, there might be a better way to engage.

“Just this week the CEO recorded a video from her house,” Byrne says. “We are also using Slack a lot more.”

Competing priorities

What are the key opportunities for your organization during the current crisis, and how can you pivot to engage new, captive audiences?

PBS had three strategic priorities as it approached the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Make sure its signal is strong and remains on the air.
  2. Offer educational materials to teachers and parents as schools close.
  3. Offer exciting, entertaining content to audiences stuck at home.

One example was to rerelease Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, a suggestion that Byrne says actually came from Burns himself. For organizations around the world, thinking about how you can fill the needs of bored and worried audiences could be a great opportunity to engage and give back to your community.

Internal champions

When it comes to taking action internally, Byrne recommends going small.

“It’s important to form small working groups,” she says. “We had a number of working groups form from departments that needed to be represented.” Examples included events and IT, among others.

“At the core of each of those groups were communications, HR and IT or operations,” says Byrne. She adds that these small groups were able to be more nimble and meet the challenges posed by the crisis.

“Have a core small group of people that are really driving things forward,” she recommends, “because time is of the essence.”

Be a trustworthy information hub

Employees and external audiences are looking for credible and trustworthy sources during the pandemic, and Byrne says that PBS has taken its role as a trusted resource seriously. That means it only shares information from a few, highly authoritative sources.

“We lean heavily on the [World Health Organization] and [ the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]” says Byrne. “We try not to editorialize because we are not the experts.”

“We want to be a resource for viewers as a place they can come for accurate and timely information.”

Advice to be tactful

It’s difficult to know how to engage with consumers during the current crisis, but many organizations have goals and initiatives that they can’t abandon. Byrne’s advice for organizations that plan to engage is to try and find ways to help your community.

“Everyone understand that this is an unusual time,” she says, but stresses that “organizations need to speak with confidence about the decisions they have made and why.” She says that it is important to be early with your information, but not so early that you can’t be sure you are providing accurate updates.

A key tactic is to provide resources to a community that is struggling to cope with all the changes that have occurred in a short amount of time.

“We’ve seen a lot of appreciation for the resources that we offer people,” Byrne says. She also advises that organizations clearly state what they are doing to protect their employees.

“A little honesty and humility go a long way as well,” she says.

Sign up for Ragan Training to watch Byrne’s full session, with insights into how to prepare for a crisis and protect your reputation,  and access the entire conference on demand.

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