Profound tragedy is unfortunately a recurring part of our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic. War. Mass shootings. Natural disasters. Police violence. Protests.

Two weeks after 9/11, PR Week asked professionals to discuss when “normal” PR activity should resume. Answers varied because it can be hard to know what’s appropriate during times of tragedy. As humans, we want to be respectful. As PR professionals, we want to be sensitive to conditions and advise our clients and teams on the best course of action. Start by evaluating the environment.

What is the scale of the tragedy?

If national, it may be best to halt all pitching and posting on social media. It could be okay to pitch unaffected areas if the story is local in scope.

Determine this by reviewing the home pages or broadcasts of target media outlets to see the priorities for those newsrooms in the moment. For individual reporters, check their recent tweets and articles to get a sense of their priorities and wellbeing. Use that context to better connect with them if relevant.

What is the pitch?

If a client is focused on a product or service that in no way ties into what publications are now solely focused on, pause everything and don’t pitch where insensitive and unnecessary until the tragedy subsides. Keep in mind that controversial news items or devastation with significant loss of life will remain in the news cycle for a while. With a smaller-scale tragedy, PR teams may be able to reach out to reporters sooner.

At the same time, even amid a large-scale issue, beat reporters will likely stick to their assigned beats, and trade publications will continue to operate within their specialty. If the story is time-sensitive and in a niche space, it’s probably okay to pitch.

There are also opportunities to interject and offer optimistic storylines. Reporters and their audiences are looking for “feel-good” stories to share when the world seems upside down. When choosing to pitch, do so with empathy. Lead by acknowledging the situation and the journalists’ world (potential role in covering or being impacted) while tactfully offering a positive alternative.

If ever unsure a client’s news is appropriate, it’s best to refrain from pitching. Proceeding without care runs the risk of coming off as tone-deaf and damaging relationships. Take this pitch sent to a New York Times contributor following the Uvalde school shooting, for example:

What should PR professionals do in the meantime?

  • Communicate pitching protocol and best practices internally and to clients, including notifying social media contacts to recommend pausing all posts.
  • Prepare clients to lower or set their expectations accordingly.
  • Consider if clients may need help drafting holding statements or internal communications about the tragedy.
  • Take this time to refocus PR strategies and research.
  • When following up about stories in process, respect that the reporter might have a very different assignment today than they had previously.

After pausing or altering outreach plans, take cues from the media on when to pick back up. Monitor news coverage and social media posts to gauge if reporters are beginning to discuss more than the tragedy. When the moment is right, resume media relations in phases, beginning with verticals and areas furthest removed from the disaster.

Dittoe Public Relations focuses on the best approach to pitching during sensitive periods while ensuring our clients get the coverage and results they seek. Click here to learn more about our PR strategy and media relations services.