7 social media PR tips for effective communication during COVID-19

Six months have passed since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Wuhan, China. On April 7, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency over the virus, and as of present it is now nationwide until May 31st. Even after this state of emergency is lifted, people will continue their daily activities at a heightened state of caution because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As there are limited opportunities for businesses, organizations, and public figures to communicate with stakeholders in person for the foreseeable future, it has become critical to communicate online using social media platforms. Working from home and even social activities such as online parties have become more familiar to Japan than ever before.

With severely limited face-to-face contact, right now online platforms are often the most viable point of interaction. However, there are also risks. If you miscommunicate, mislead, or choose the wrong message to deliver, it can cause serious reputation damage.

Your social media communication strategy during this time should consider opportunities, risks, and take into account that all of your stakeholders – business partners, customers, and the general public – have access to whatever you post. Here are some social media do’s and don’ts for strategic communications during the coronavirus pandemic.




1. Share how you are constructively contributing to activities during this time of crisis

Most modern organizations already contribute proactively to social good initiatives. However, for all of the press releases and CSR reports that are sent out, how often do people react to them? Unfortunately, it is not often a large number.
Right now, social good activities such as donations are receiving more attention. While it is important to promote CSR/CSV activities in a transparent and modest manner, generous contributions that receive positive attention can earn stakeholders’ recognition. For example, recently there was a very positive reaction on social media after famous Japanese recording artist Yoshiki announced his donation to a relief fund supporting the music industry.

Yoshiki, who has made many donations through his NPO Yoshiki Foundation America, contributed $100,000 to the COVID-19 relief fund and made an announcement on Twitter. His donation received extensive coverage, and other famous recording artists such as Ayumi Hamasaki made similar donations following his lead. His activity was praised, not just for making a contribution, but also encouraging other prominent public figures.

2. Use your specialty, resources, or area of expertise

When you use your strong area to do something for people’s benefit, this can become something inspirational. Many companies and public figures have made such efforts, but perhaps the one most talked about in Japan presently is singer-songwriter Gen Hoshino.

Gen Hoshino
Utilizing his musical talent, Gen Hoshino posted a video of himself singing a new song that encourages people to stay at home and keep in high spirits. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and led to many people as well as celebrities in Japan sharing their own videos using his song on social media.

3. Leaders can use direct communication to quickly spread important information

The coronavirus pandemic has created many unknowns in terms of treatment as well as government policy and changes in how companies operate. As the situation changes frequently, it can be very confusing and frustrating.
In addition, because anyone can post on social media sometimes incorrect or misleading information will inevitably be shared. Under these circumstances, it is important for leaders to take initiative themselves to share the facts with stakeholders. It is becoming necessary and even expected for leaders to take prompt action. Below are some examples of how public figures have successfully made such initiatives using social media.

Governor Yoshimura Yoshifumi of Osaka
Gov. Yoshifumi has been very proactive in sharing information about Osaka Prefecture’s COVID-19 response on Twitter. He has held several live interactive video conferences on Twitter, using hashtags such as #askthegov. He has also successfully navigated through divisive decisions such as announcing the names of pachinko parlors that did not cooperate to Osaka’s demand to suspend business operations. By explaining his policies not only on TV interviews but also on Twitter, he has strengthened his reputation as a leader who is not afraid to speak directly with residents.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York State (USA)
Gov. Cuomo has made global headlines for his unique way of frequently updating New York residents via Twitter and concisely explaining his policies. Through direct communication, he has appealed to the people of NY how the state government is closely working with local businesses. In one instance, Gov. Cuomo used Twitter to announce how New York state partnered with the local milk industry, which has suffered from poor performance due to the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, we have focused on the positives, but there are also many risks that companies and public figures need to be aware of when communicating via social media.



4. Think before you post. Avoid sharing things that could generate a negative reaction.

Because it’s easy to post on social media, you can immediately share your own personal opinion or perspective to the world. However, it is necessary to constantly consider: Who is your audience? Does the benefit that will result from your communication outweigh the risks? What should you and what should you not communicate on social media? It is also important to refrain from sharing when it is not appropriate.

Elon Musk
As COVID-19 spread across the world and there were shortages of daily necessities, entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted, “The coronavirus panic is dumb.” This post received international attention. Although the tweet received over 1.7 million likes, it also received a great deal of negative reactions. While Elon Musk is known for making such controversial remarks, it is hard to quantify any benefit he might have received from making this post.

Keisuke Honda
Football player Keisuke Honda tweeted, “the government cannot save everyone. The government can help high-priority citizens, but the low-priority ones need to help each other.” He received a lot of criticism for this post because of his use of the word “priority”. He later stated that he did not intend to imply that some people are more “high priority” than others, but only after receiving a considerable amount of criticism. While public figures often feel the need to speak their mind, in this particular case, such a statement regarding a serious issue should have been more carefully thought out.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Prime Minister Abe’s official Instagram has been used to share a variety of photos and videos to his over 600,000 followers. Occasionally, there are videos posted that are created by the PM Office’s digital team. Recently a video was posted showing a “collaboration” with Gen Hoshino. In the video, the popular song is combined with scenes of the Prime Minister staying home and relaxing. The concept of the video was to show support for people who are staying home in compliance with government requests. Unfortunately, it was not well received. Many saw the post as inappropriate and sending the wrong message that the prime minister is showcasing his ability to relax during a national crisis. It is important to remember that especially during times of crisis, people have high expectations for leaders and how they communicate. This includes not just what is said, but also non-verbal communication.

5. Accept criticism but avoid heated debates and defensive reactions

If you are an organization or public figure, avoid responding to individual complaints or criticisms. Also do not deactivate your account, delete your account, or block the antagonist unless it rises to the level of unlawful threats. Reacting sensationally signals that you are troubled by such dissents or objections, and encourages your adversary to continue. The safest way is to accept dissent and criticism, but avoid unnecessary reaction.

Governor Hideaki Omura, Aichi Prefecture
Gov. Omura made a comment during a local TV program that, “(Coronavirus) is just like the flu, it’s an infectious disease that has to spread to be cured. Therefore, find it early by a thorough examination, recover while the symptoms are mild, and be discharged from the hospital.” This was widely criticized on Twitter. While he could have mitigated the damage by straightforward communication, he started blocking accounts of those who criticized him one after another, which led to even further criticism.

6. Do not flaunt special privileges during the crisis

During the national state of emergency, many people are being asked to refrain from most daily activities. Flaunting privileged behavior during this time is likely to be criticized.

Hon. Hiroshi Hase, House of Representatives Member
During the state of emergency and while many companies moved to remote work, a group of politicians went on a study trip to an NPO’s free cafe and resource center for teenage girls and shared it on Facebook. Their behavior during the visit was severely criticized on Twitter by the NPO. This quickly made news headlines and also received criticism from the opposition party. For a public figure, having a study trip during a state of emergency is a bad idea, and posting about it on social media is even more ill advised.

Asahi Shimbun “Taiwan Isolation Diary”
National newspaper Asahi Shimbun featured a series of articles about how their Bangkok correspondent managed to slide into Taiwan under the isolation policy against COVID-19, and reported on how she was isolated at the local accommodation. Online criticism quickly mounted, and the series was canceled.

7. Do not spread false rumors

Information shared by companies and public figures on social media can have a great influence, and is often seen as an endorsement. Posting false or misleading things on social media betrays the audience’s trust and can lead to severe criticism and backlash.

Jaejoong (singer)
As an April Fool’s joke, South Korean singer Jaejoong posted on his Instagram that he was infected with the coronavirus. It was quickly featured on the news as fact. However, it turned out that the post was an April Fools’ prank, as he confessed a few hours after his original post. Given the severity of the coronavirus situation, he faced harsh criticism from fans and the general public.

Social media has become an important communication platform for companies and public figures alike.

It is important to constantly be aware of the consequences of each post, because social media is public and word spreads quickly.

As people are spending more time on social media during this time of crisis, make good use of your owned media platforms while staying aware of the do’s and don’ts.