How firms are responding to COVID-19: A Q&A with Allan R. Gold

Professional services firms are publishing extensively on the business implications of the novel coronavirus crisis. Leff has been closely following their approaches to thought leadership in this difficult time (for a review of what some firms have published, see this and this). In this interview, Leff’s founder, Scott, talks with Leff Senior Advisor Allan R. Gold about who’s doing what in COVID-19-related thought leadership.

Scott: How are professional services firms responding to the crisis in their thought leadership publishing?

Allan: The thinking goes that professional services firms do best when the economy is doing great or when it’s doing awful. Things are awful right now, and this is giving firms the chance to distinguish themselves in client service and thought leadership. You have to believe that the firms are working 24/7 with their clients.

The firms we monitor got off to a slow start in terms of publishing on the business implications of the coronavirus but most have ramped up in a big way. I don’t usually follow law-firm thought leadership but some of them are also weighing in. At this point, it would be impossible for any executive to keep up with the flow of content. I do this for a living, and I find it hard to manage.

You can see that each firm has its own view about how much to publish and on what topics. Some are flooding the zone and others are pretty quiet. How much decent intellectual property they actually have on the topic probably factors into the decision. But some don’t let that gap stand in the way of publishing, and we’re seeing any number of thin pieces going out. By thin, I mean a bunch of bullet points touching on a subject in a mostly superficial way.

Also, I think some firms are trying to avoid looking like they are taking advantage of the crisis to win business. For example, firms are beginning pieces with boilerplate language such as “this is foremost a humanitarian crisis.” I’d also guess that some are limiting or eschewing broadcast and going direct to clients to avoid the appearance of commercialism.

For other firms, it remains business as usual and no topics are off limits.

Scott: What are the most common angles that professional services firms are taking?

Allan: Consulting firms have focused from the start on how to handle supply-chain disruption. That’s not a surprise, given the importance of the subject to so many of their big clients as well as the giant role that China plays in manufacturing.

As time passes, we’re seeing more analyses on the impact of the crisis on sectors, including automobiles, consumer goods and retailing, private equity, and semiconductors. Firms are also publishing on what Western companies can learn from Asian enterprises’ experiences dealing with the crisis. I’m also finding pieces on how specific members of the C-suite or other high-ranking executives should be responding to the crisis.

Many firms have a point of view on how to lead during crises, especially executive search firms, as well as best practices in working remotely. Among search firms, Korn Ferry has been especially active.

Finally, besides traditional thought leadership articles, firms are rolling out podcasts, webinars, and in the case of PwC, a digital tool aimed at helping companies better understand various aspects of their operational and financial situation with respect to the coronavirus.

Scott: Are there areas that few or none are touching?

Allan: You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that almost everyone is avoiding direct criticism of government responses to the crisis. But some are obliquely noting the delayed response of the US government.

Scott: What have been the most impressive pieces you’ve encountered and why?

Allan: There has been a lot of good work published in the past six weeks. Some firms’ landing pages are filled with content.

Specifically, Bain & Company has been closely following the implications of the crisis for the Chinese corporate sector almost since the pandemic began. In one piece, the authors use their special access to online shopper data to discuss how consumer behavior may evolve after the crisis and what it means for Chinese consumer companies.

McKinsey & Company is cranking up its publishing engine. But it has taken an interesting approach with respect to its agenda. The firm is building its coverage around a summary briefing—pandemic and economic trends and company responses to the crisis—that it regularly updates. Under this umbrella, the firm is publishing more specific sector and functional pieces. Most recently, the firm delivered an impressive—and unusual—societal call to action.

Aon published a short piece on cybersecurity early in the cycle. The firm deserves credit for identifying weeks ago an important issue emerging from the surge in remote working arrangements.

Scott: Do you see many pieces that are looking at the long-term impact?

Allan: It’s early for that, but we’re starting to see some articles looking ahead. There’s an interesting one from the CEO of Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Rich Lesser, published last week in Fortune. His comments may have even influenced a recent Wall Street Journal editorial.

Scott: Are there ways firms can publish on topics unrelated to the coronavirus crisis?

Allan: I think most businesspeople have absolutely no appetite to read even another piece on agile, digital transformations, and the like right now. I suspect such articles will disappear into the ozone, never to be heard from again. Better to wait a few weeks and see how this situation unfolds.

One thing that firm marketers should definitely avoid: desperately seeking a hook to the current crisis in an article long in the works and unrelated to what’s going on today. I saw one of those attempts the other day, and it was transparent what the marketers were trying to do. That’s a sure way to appear commercial and opportunistic and to lose credibility.    

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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