The role of content amid the COVID-19 crisis

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog called “Why your content strategy falls off the rails, and what to do about it.” At that time, and up until a few months ago, I didn’t consider that one of the reasons a content strategy could fall of the rails would be a public health crisis that has wrought anxiety and fear across the world, shuttered schools and businesses, and exposed systemic issues that put the most vulnerable people at higher risk. The suggestions I made then for getting strategy back on track don’t apply in the context of a pandemic. In an email to our team, my colleague Heather wrote: in the face of COVID-19, content is not about strategy but making sense of what’s happening in the world. We need information and guidance for both immediate action and to identify a path forward. No one expects all the answers, but readers deserve accuracy and utility.

The COVID-19 publishing cycle is fast and furious—as soon as the ink hits the page, something changes and the data we’re working with becomes outdated. Many companies are trying to balance urgent timing with quality content. At the end of the day (if you’re still observing those), content that helps us understand the rapidly changing data, learn from others, and make more informed decisions is critical. So, if your organization is currently producing content, we’ve developed a few recommendations to help ensure it makes an impact.

Focus on what your audience—and society—needs the most

Professional services firms that are publishing right now must put aside their regular agendas and help address real-time challenges. We’ve come across some pieces with the message that now is the time to be bold and invest in a digital transformation. While that may be the right path for some companies, many others are focused on survival, minimally viable solutions, how to take care of employees, managing the breakdown of their supply chains, and dealing with sudden drops in revenue. Cash management may not be as sexy as agile transformations, but the ideas that held executives’ attention a handful of months ago probably shouldn’t now.

Firms also have a role to play in highlighting COVID-19’s immediate and prolonged effects on society and strategizing a path forward, as McKinsey & Company did in this report on the pandemic’s disproportionate health and economic impact on Black Americans. Institutions of all types are being tested in new ways—and content focused on their challenges can help them prioritize actions and make decisions.

Be honest and direct

Many professional services firms are embedding messaging that the pandemic is a human tragedy, acknowledging that while they are focused on helping public- and private-sector groups navigate the crisis, the public-health challenge and the lives at stake have to stay at the center of the conversation. Doing so personalizes the authors and can help put things in perspective. But right now, what readers are really seeking are quality, trustworthy sources of information. And building trust isn’t just about communicating empathy or acknowledging the human tragedy. Nor is it really about warmth and optimism. To build trust, firms have to acknowledge what they don’t know and be honest—brutally honest—about the risks and challenges their readers are facing.

Firms should also be direct: readers need clarity, not platitudes or catchy acronyms. Make it easy for them to grasp the takeaways and avoid unnecessary setup; they already know we’re in an unprecedented crisis, facing a new normal, and the like. Sort through the data for them—don’t simply give a readout of the numbers. Good design can play a role, particularly in helping readers make sense of a large amount of data and ensuring that the most salient points and actions are highly visible.

Date all content

Confirmed COVID-19 cases, unemployment numbers, restrictions on people and places—these things are changing quickly, by the minute, even. While it’s always important for companies to date their content so readers know the context, it’s critical in today’s environment. Publishers and companies that have created a briefing center or landing page that houses data should make the dates prominent and acknowledge how quickly numbers can fall out of date.

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In crisis mode, good content is more important than ever. People are looking for insight from thought leaders. Making sure content is focused on readers’ challenges, communicating directly, and prioritizing timeliness and context will help those insights cut through the noise.

Alia Samhat

Alia is the director of accounts and strategy at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and operations, weaving together the efforts of writers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.

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