PR expert: Take care of yourself, your company and your community to weather COVID-19 crisis

During a crisis, business leaders need a sounding board – a team that will help with creative ideas, strong advice and grounded opinions. That has never been more important now with the crisis raging across the world with the coronavirus pandemic.

Peter Van Dyke is the CEO of VanDyke Horn, Michigan’s largest minority-owned public relations agency, and he and the VDH team have been counseling clients as well as small businesses through pro-bono agreements through COVID-19 and its economic impact. And one voice keeps coming back to Van Dyke in these first weeks: Bob Berg.

Berg was a founding partner of the firm, formerly known as Berg Muirhead and Associates. Since Berg’s death in 2019, Van Dyke is reminded of the lessons Berg taught him and so many others in Metro Detroit’s PR world. Van Dyke described Berg as one of the best-known crisis managers in Michigan, and that is why his office has the skills to help business owners right now as well as into the future.

“Bob had three different phrases that were good in a crisis: ‘This too shall pass.’ ‘When you need a friend it’s too late to make one.’ And ‘When you’re faced with a tough decision if it feels good don’t do it,’” Van Dyke said.

Translation: Have a good strategy, Van Dyke said. It starts with being responsible. If you do not have a PR firm and cannot afford one at this time, you can put these basics into place and successfully navigate one of the most unprecedented times in our nation’s economic history, Van Dyke said. It won’t be easy. It likely will stress-test everything about your business. But it is necessary to communicate, to adapt and to connect with your audience in real and meaningful ways.

For example, VanDyke Horn started working with Detroit-based retail business City Bird recently, helping the Linn family with crisis communication on a pro-bono basis – one of the ways the firm sought to help the city and its small businesses was through this kind of offer, Van Dyke said.

City Bird wanted a review of a letter it was going to send customers about the impact of the virus, and that letter was beautifully written, Van Dyke said. The VDH team suggested adding a list of products City Bird offered that would be helpful to people during this challenging time, such as kitchen gear, toys for children and other products in stock that could not only help keep City Bird operating and making money but assist its customers.

Being responsible means taking care of yourself, your company and your community, Van Dyke said. Finding that balance right now may seem impossible, but it is essential to take care of all three aspect of your world now that it has been turned upside down as an entrepreneur and business owner, he added.

“It doesn’t do anyone any good for you not to weather this crisis,” Van Dyke said.

Here are some of Van Dyke’s other suggestions for how to get through the weeks and months to come in terms of both crisis management but public relations:

  • Communicate quickly and often. Stay in touch with your customers and your employees, Van Dyke said. “You have to manage your company through a downturn if you want a company left at the end,” he said. “Ask your employees what they need, get them help. They also want a company to come back to.” If you had to let workers go, assist them with the unemployment process.
  • Connect with your community. Look for creative ways to be a good corporate citizen. This is key every day, not just during a crisis, Van Dyke said. When VDH heard small businesses were struggling, the firm offered to coach these Detroit institutions through these early days, something City Bird and other businesses jumped on as needed. “I got on the phone with our team and I volunteered us,” Van Dyke said, and the VDH staff was on board. “Small businesses and cultural institutions are the fabric of every city,” he said, and if you help them, you create a place where people want to work and better businesses as a result.
  • Find your friends. A communications firm or PR company is great to work with because they offer another perspective on your everyday activities, Van Dyke said. If you cannot do that right now, set up a Zoom meeting with other small businesses, smart friends or mentors for a virtual chat. They can help you through this crisis.
  • Take care of the little things. Think about how to go online or how to offer things via a carryout service. Maybe go and organize your files. That way, you’ll be ready as a company to jump back into it when things start to open back up to regular business. Take the time that is available now to set your office up for the future, Van Dyke said.
  • Remember: This too shall pass. Bob Berg said this all the time, Van Dyke said. Once people are past the initial crisis of this virus, the hard work of rebuilding will begin. Van Dyke said he is challenging his team on behalf of their clients to think bigger than this moment and to think long term. What will make them stronger after the crisis?