How COVID-19 has changed content creation: A roundtable

Over the past couple months, my colleagues and I have been working closely with clients publishing pieces on the current coronavirus pandemic. Both the volume of content and the subject matter warranted some adjustments to how we approach the development process and production. When working with tight timelines and a subject of such importance, we’ve had to balance managing risk and sensitivities and getting the job done quickly and well.

I sat down with Leff’s Allan Gold (senior adviser), Annie Mullowney (editor), Galina Velgach (editorial associate), and Delilah Zak (design director) to get their perspectives on what’s changed from an editorial and design perspective as well as on how we’re adapting to working in a high-pressure environment.

Rachel: We’re more than a month into working on COVID-19 content. How has the landscape of what is being published in thought leadership changed? Is there any slowdown in pieces on the coronavirus?

Allan: Quality standards have fallen—but I’m not sure it matters all that much right now. I imagine that clients are looking for whatever insights they can get and are not really focused on niceties such as transitions between sections and paragraphs. What counts more than ever are distinctive and specific insights on the current situation, rather than superficial beating of the drum of the virtues of agile approaches or digitalization.

Annie: Obviously, each firm is approaching this time differently, so it’s hard to paint them with a broad brush. The reality also changes from one day to the next. But there does seem to be a bit of a slowdown on COVID-19 pieces. And some places that had stopped or slowed publishing besides content related to the pandemic are starting to return to and rethink articles they began writing pre-COVID.

At the same time, while stay-at-home or similar orders are now extending to June in some states and countries, many others are beginning to open up. Schools have resumed in some areas of the world. Such divergences are opening the door to a whole new wave of content reflecting what we learn from such places and what people need to know about recovery and a post-coronavirus world. Although it may be slowing, I think the theme will continue somewhat steadily for quite some time.

Rachel: What are some best practices you’ve learned on how to respond to client requests and expectations, especially since pipeline priorities change quickly?

Galina: We have to juggle competing priorities from different angles, trying to provide a pleasant client experience while doing work we’re proud of—all while supporting each other and our own well-being. And when these forces are at odds with one another, effective project management is especially critical. Establishing strict timelines, outlining priorities, clarifying trade-offs, and following up—these are good practices on any given day but essential in a deluge like the one we’ve seen. The best practices boil down to being frank and being flexible:

1. Get the full picture from the client. I send the same list to client teams over and over to get answers to five Ws: what do you need (PDF or web article), when do you need this by, why does this need to be done within the specific parameters, where is this going to appear (online or for a client-facing communication), and who needs to be involved and approve. These are all deeply connected, and the answer to one question may well affect the others.

2. Give a clear picture of what is required from our side. Some of our clients are familiar with editorial and production processes, but many are not. What makes us good partners is not just our ability to complete requests but to fill in any gaps in story line, logic, and process. Being clear what can be done—and, more importantly, what can’t be—can be tough, but it’s absolutely necessary to develop a level of trust and keep the relationship functional.

3. Get things down in writing and refer to it often. Usually email will do, but don’t underestimate the power of a phone call; a lot can be lost between time zones and email styles. Overcommunicating can be cumbersome but it also means you are leaving nothing up to chance.

4. Check in with your team. We have frequent internal check-ins to ensure we all have transparency into what is coming down the pipeline. While things can still pop up last minute, the effort is important.

Rachel: Writing a piece about COVID-19 presents added sensitivities. What are some things you look out for when you get a draft or move to design?

Delilah: Art presents a lot of sensitivities in general. Before COVID-19, we always looked for optimistic, inspiring, or idealistic imagery, since the focus for a lot of thought leadership is how to improve your company or empower people to work better or more productively.

But now, we’re trying to maintain a fine balance of realism and somberness in our art. We try and avoid images of the virus itself as those can be off-putting and make readers uncomfortable; they are also overused. Instead, we focus on people—how are they dealing with this new situation? We want images to show what people are going through, so that may mean pictures of people working at home, empty streets, children completing schoolwork at home, things like that. People shouldn’t look too happy, but we also don’t want to appear pessimistic.

Allan: Thousands of people are dying and many more are getting sick. And we’re on the verge of Depression-era levels of unemployment. Meanwhile, thousands of enterprises will go out of business. Authors must be sensitive to this context and avoid the appearance of commercialism or making recommendations that suggest taking financial advantage of the situation. So, I look for overt references to layoffs as a cost-cutting measure; articles about “opportunistic” M&A are also inappropriate, especially when they refer to the bargain-basement prices of some companies. Remember that some of those businesses are clients, too. The best way to treat these sensitive issues is in direct-to-client memos rather than broadcast publication.

Rachel: How is managing a pipeline of content different during a crisis?

Annie: The biggest difference is the pace—and this affects every part of the editorial process. Because things are changing so quickly, the window for publishing on a topic is quite small. And there’s a legitimate motivation to move quickly to publish insights on best practices for governments, for instance, or health care institutions. Not to be too hyperbolic, but lives are hanging in the balance. So we have learned to shrink our development and production timelines as much as possible; take a hard line with authors on due dates for their reviews, which they understand; and parallel process where possible—for instance, get materials to design early in the narrative development stage and proofread during authors’ final review of PDFs. In some cases, we’re also exploring creative solutions such as publishing without a PDF or publishing an executive summary to buy us a bit more time to draft a full report. Is this all a bit taxing on everyone involved? Certainly. But I think we all feel that these temporary sacrifices are worth it and trust that our world, and workloads, will start to look more normal before too long.

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