Publishing during the pandemic: A Q&A with McKinsey Global Editorial Director Lucia Rahilly

Professional services firms have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a deluge of content. A major source of class-leading content on the crisis has been McKinsey & Company. Since early March, the firm has published more than 350 articles on the pandemic, weighing in with broad, context-setting pieces as well as sector, functional, and geographic perspectives.

Leading McKinsey’s publishing effort is Lucia Rahilly, the firm’s global editorial director. In this interview with Scott Leff and Allan Gold of Leff, Rahilly discusses the firm’s approach to publishing since the crisis began. The effort, Rahilly says, has spurred record-setting traffic to the firm’s website and app and produced an outsize share of voice in the marketplace.

Leff: What strategies did McKinsey put in place to guide the development of thought leadership during the pandemic?

Lucia: We’ve received lots of attention for our volume of output, but, in fact, we’ve been very deliberate. Early on, we made a strategic decision to focus first on facts, frameworks, and clear global insights, rather than bringing to market a plethora of quick hits. We spent nearly a month developing our first piece, “COVID-19: Implications for business,” which ran March 2 and focuses on epidemiological trends and what their economic impact might be, as well as how business might begin to formulate a response. And although we updated that piece the following week—and have continued to update it regularly—we held on publishing anything new until mid-March, when we’d developed the beginnings of a pipeline that took the gravity of this global pandemic into account. Those initial pieces—especially “Implications for business”—provided the foundation that could ground narrower sector and regional pieces as the pandemic, and the business landscape, evolved.

Leff: The firm published two other big pieces early in the cycle, right?

Lucia: Right. Following “Implications for business,” we published “Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal,” coauthored by our managing partner, Kevin Sneader, and “Safeguarding our lives and our livelihoods: The imperative of our time.” The former sets out our 5R framework—resolve, resilience, return, reimagination, and reform—which now structures much of our work, internally and externally.

Both pieces have become seminal and have gotten a lot of traction. The expression “lives and livelihoods” seems to have entered the vernacular now and is used in the media and by public figures around the globe. Likewise for “the next normal.”

Leff: What impact have you seen on audience response?

Lucia: Readership and engagement are at an all-time high—the highest levels in our history. “Implications for business” has more than twice the traffic of our previous best performer, and visits continue to climb. And that’s happening again and again with other pieces—we’re getting tremendous traffic right out of the gate, and that traffic continues to build via search and media mentions. It confirms the intersection between our reach and the relevance of our publications and our audience’s most-pressing priorities.

Leff: Have you been paying attention to what the competition is publishing?

Lucia: Of course. You have to pay attention to what’s out there. Every publisher—corporate and media—represents competition for our audience’s time and attention. But more than ever, at a time like this, readers gravitate toward quality. We’re at the point where the floodgates have opened, and many companies are bringing ideas to market on everything and anything. We’re also beginning to see evidence of COVID fatigue—not yet in traffic to our own content but in externally published research on traffic patterns in the media more broadly.

Rather than rush new ideas to market or repeat ourselves, we’ve also been looking for opportunities to align developing research to specific issues of strong interest in the news. For example, the press has published a variety of articles on the effects of COVID on mental and behavioral health—an area we were researching substantively. That was the impetus for us to publish “Returning to resilience: The impact of COVID-19 on mental health and substance use.” That’s just one of many examples across a variety of topics and geographies.

Leff: To what extent have you thought about avoiding the appearance of commercialism or taking advantage of the situation?

Lucia: We view this first as a humanitarian crisis. It’s very difficult not seem tone-deaf when you’re talking about business opportunities at the end of a cycle like this, right? We’ve been pretty vigilant about monitoring for topics, and for language and editorial tone, that risk invoking that kind of opportunism. And we’ve published on a variety of topics that are not about the business impact of COVID-19 but about pressing social issues that affect so many of us—philanthropy, for example, or safely reopening our children’s schools, or the intersection between the pandemic and climate risk.

Leff: The publishing rhythm obviously went into high gear. Why did this happen, and how have you adapted your processes and your team to the faster cycle time—in some cases just days from outline to publication?

Lucia: I think part of the reason we’ve published as much as we have, as quickly as we have, is that so many different exigencies are coalescing. The urgency of the situation, in part, has driven the urgency of the publication schedule.

For example, engagement with our authors has been very high—historically so, in my experience. As you know, we can’t rely on that in normal times; even when author teams have the best of intentions, their day jobs are just too high-intensity. Our various frameworks, especially the 5Rs, have also provided a structure for authors that helps them organize their thinking and gives them a clear path for bringing their ideas to market. And, of course, underpinning all this is the firm’s incredible investment in intellectual and research capacity, as well as the huge practical input from the client side.

Equally important, we have a fantastic and remarkably dedicated publishing team, as well as trusted external partners. Colleagues are working really hard, and at the same time grappling with other stressors: the murder of George Floyd and the pain of persistent racial injustice, the abrupt shift to working remotely, the challenges of being stuck at home—for some, alone, and for others, with family but with the added pressure of homeschooling kids. The team has really been heroic.

Leff: Do you think you’ll be able to maintain this combination of high quality and fast pace?

Lucia: Quality, without question. There’s no impact without a rigorous focus on the caliber of output—there’s just no point. On pace, we were in some ways prepared for this kind of acceleration, in that we fundamentally transformed our operations about five years ago. We did a lot of process reengineering at that time, and, more recently, we’ve worked with an agile coach to review our tools, look at possibilities for automation, and streamline the way we work as a team.

Obviously we’ve had to exert tremendous effort to get the flywheel turning. But now that we’ve gotten it started, we’re starting to reap the benefits of momentum. Colleagues are becoming more accustomed to doing more, more quickly. We’re optimistic that with some additional investments—especially in technology and process improvements—we can help the firm maintain a new level of agility in our publishing. And seeing the impact of these collective efforts is an enormous motivating factor.

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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