March 24, 2020
Content in a Time of Crisis
Content in a Time of Crisis

In times of crisis, content is mission critical. You must deliver and update information to your customers and employees in real-time, across multiple channels. It's a new game. Content is not brand marketing or mundane communications. In a crisis, content is the information your customers, employees, and other people that count on your organization need to survive, adapt, and to continue your business operations. Brands are forged in the fire of a crisis. It's a test of your character and resiliency. It all starts with clear communications and content.

We've had the fortune of helping many of the world's leading organizations deliver websites, portals, and other digital experiences for 20 years. Together we’ve weathered many crises, from 9/11 to the Great Recession, but we have never seen a global crisis like we are experiencing today. Our job has never been more important. We have a responsibility to customers, employees, and their families.

We don't have all the answers. But we do have two decades of experience managing and delivering mission critical content and communications. We'd like to share some of those insights with you.

Start with a Plan

As this crisis has been unfolding, I have been taken back to the poem If by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling wrote these prophetic lines:

If you can keep your head when all about you;
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
….
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
….
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

Organizations that weather the storm have a plan. You need to keep your head. You also need to run the marathon. While it's crucial to react -- and react quickly -- you need to have an overall communications strategy and system in place. You also need to make sure your technology aligns with your communications strategy. Where there are gaps, you need to fill them.

Your plan starts with the overall business continuity program. How are you going to sustain operations during the disruption? Next, you need a crisis communication plan. This may mean creating new processes or adapting existing processes to ensure that the organization is communicating clearly and consistently across all channels. These channels include your websites, your email communication program, social media channels, chat and bots, customer portals, employee intranet, and internal communications. These channels may be owned and operated by different stakeholders and departments. Now, communications need to be aligned regardless of the channel owner.

Next, define the types of content that need to be delivered: video, announcements and notifications, site updates, etc. If you are an organization that offers your products and services online, or that provides customer support that is impacted by disruptions, you may also need to update core web and business applications. This can mean pushing new content into those business applications and workflows using a headless CMS integration or leveraging static content resources. If these changes are required, teams need to schedule the sprints to make the updates and changes quickly.

What is the chain of command for communications? Information must be vetted and approved before it goes live. A modern content platform should have a workflow system in place that provides the approvals and routing you need to manage all communications. Equally important, it provides an audit trail so you can document content updates, when they are made, and by whom.

Define your audiences and lists. You need to have validated contact information and define how you are communicating with each audience group. If you run marketing automation or an email program, you should audit your lists to ensure that the messaging is aligned, and all key audiences are being updated. Likewise, for social media followers, employee communications, and other key audiences.  

Once you've defined the plan, the channels you need to support, and your audience lists and segments, you can look at the tactical updates for your customer and employee-facing applications.

Customer-facing Strategies

Crisis content management and communications mean aligning messaging not only across channels but also between segments such as customers and internal employees and partners. Let's look at some of the key channels for reaching these audiences and some effective tactics that you can employ quickly.

Web Communications Strategy

In a crisis such as the current global pandemic, your website is a primary channel to communicate with your customers.  You need to optimize your web experience to make announcements, news, and essential information front and center. This may mean adapting your website to support the type of communications you need to deliver. There are a few ways you can do this:

Alerts and Notifications: Create and implement banner and/or pop-up alerts or notifications that provide up to date information for your customers. Keep these notifications concise and easy to understand. If needed, provide a link to more detailed information on a web page on your site. Alerts can be alarming and fear-inducing, so they need to be used only for the most critical information, such as closures, or critical announcements. But used correctly, alerts can be a very effective way to communicate essential information, especially when paired with an outbound messaging system. 

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions): Your customers have questions. You need to provide answers, but don't have the staff to support 1:1 communication. To avoid continually providing answers to commonly asked questions over and over, sometimes giving different answers, create an FAQ section on your website. The FAQ can be the central clearinghouse for providing consistent answers to all the questions your customers are asking.

It's wise to wrap FAQ responses to a review and approval workflow to ensure the responses you provide are correct. You can also direct certain types of questions to the departments and people in your organization best suited to answer them. Set up an internal communications process to monitor the questions that customers are asking, document the answers, and then publish them in a timely manner. If you are an Ingeniux customer, we have a standard FAQ module we can set up quickly on your website.

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Leverage Your Blog: Blogs provide an easy way to publish content on a topic quickly. If you have a blog and have regular traffic to it, giving regular updates via blog posts is useful. If you automatically publish posts to your social media feeds, then you can be sure your customers are getting the information they need in the channels they prefer.

Create a Real Hero Graphic: Many websites have a large graphic, called a Hero graphic, on their home page, generally to deliver a marketing or central brand message. The hero graphic is your prime billboard on your website. Modify your homepage to communicate important information to your customers. For example, in your home page hero graphic, instead of touting your brand messages, place a message to your customers related to how you are handling business during the coronavirus. This message will be the first thing they see and center your communications and messaging.

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Deliver a Message from Leadership: Probably one of the most important things you can during a crisis like the coronavirus is to provide a message from leadership. This can be in the form of a letter posted on the website, or a video. The message should share what the organization is doing during this time and how they are supporting their customers and other constituents.

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Review and Adjust Business Processes/Workflows

You probably have standard business processes or workflows. The coronavirus may be disrupting how these processes work, and you need to modify them to ensure they still function during this period.

For example, if you have a process that manages product refunds, including the period you can request a refund, you may need to modify this process by extending the refund period and the steps a customer must take to request one. This information should be available on your website, so customers know the new process.

Another example is online scheduling of appointments. If you have already scheduled meetings, you'll have to add steps to your process to reach out to customers and reschedule. For any new appointments, you'll want to change your existing process to explain that appointments are now virtual or must be delayed to some point in the future.

Universities are another example of needing to review and adjust online processes due to the coronavirus. As campuses shut down and students move to an online learning environment, universities need to change many of their operations to support this new model.

You'll also want to make sure customer self-service tools are working as expected, and you have resources in place to support customers who are using those tools, perhaps for the first time.

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If a process can't be changed, communicate why and what a customer or student is to do during this time.

To help you understand all the processes that could be affected by the coronavirus, create a checklist of all your procedures, and identify all critical services impacted. Once you have the information, develop contingency plans to support your customers.

Staffing Plan

The coronavirus doesn't discriminate who it affects, and one or more of your employees will likely be infected, need to care for someone infected, or need time off to care for family members. Staff shortages may include some on your digital communications staff.

Define a staffing plan that identifies the key roles in digital communications and who fills them currently. Then outline the process that will need to happen if one of those people is unable to fulfill their responsibilities, including who can replace them and what type of cross-training is necessary to ensure that a person can perform the role. You may want to reach out to your vendors to see if they can provide business continuity and outsourced services. Ingeniux delivers a Content Services program where our staff can take responsibility for customers' content updates and publishing if additional help is required.

Social Media Strategy

Social media is an excellent tool for crisis communication, but it requires strategic audience building. You cannot build an audience overnight. Not all your customers and prospects interact with you via your social channels. But your social channels are another way to communicate with your customers during this time of crisis and many of our customers are seeing a 5x increase in social engagement.

Most organizations approach social media as a tool for awareness. But in times like this, sharing pretty pictures or cool marketing messages is the last thing you want to do. Depending on where your customers and employees spend their time: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, share as much tactical communications as you can. Keep customers up to date on relevant news, such as changes in how your customer service and support teams are working, things your company is doing to ensure its customers and employees are safe, and where to go to find more information.

Keep in mind that you can't build a crisis communication list on social media like you can in email. Social media is earned media. You need to organically build your list, but you can use your content marketing strategy and your other communications tools to help expand your social followers and audience. Moreover, in a time of crisis customers will seek you out on social media. Their engagement may be positive or negative, so it needs to be monitored. Social media is not a publishing platform, it’s a conversation. You need to be prepared to engage, respond, and provide feedback.   

Actively building your social media audiences to include customers and key stakeholders you need to inform may only partially support your coronavirus updates efforts today, but it will build a crisis communication list that you can use for future crises, and should be incorporated in your overall social media strategy.

Digital Infrastructure Strategy

Some businesses that provide critical services are being overwhelmed by web traffic, disrupting their ability to deliver online services. Even organizations that are not directly involved will see stress on their systems. With more people working from home or home with no work, a lot more time is being spent online. And that could mean a lot more traffic to your website, putting additional stress on the infrastructure you weren't prepared for.

It's difficult to redesign your infrastructure to support increased traffic when you are in the middle of a pandemic. But there are immediate tactics; and you can start to rethink your digital infrastructure strategy for the next time.

Static Homepages

One approach that many organizations consider for disaster recovery purposes is putting up a static version of their website, or at a minimum, a static homepage. This approach ensures that at least your homepage is always available. To do this, you need a CMS that supports a hybrid approach to publishing content, including mixing static content rendering with dynamic content for pages that need to update regularly. A static homepage or website has no database backend to depend on and lowers the overhead of processes and performance needed to render your site.

Decoupling Your Delivery Tiers

One of the things you want to plan for to ensure your environment can handle additional, unexpected loads, includes decoupling your front-end website from the backend content management system. This would enable you to quickly put up additional web servers to handle the extra traffic. It also provides the flexibility to deliver your content to multiple locations. So, if you are updating your information regularly, it's easier to push it out to multiple channels at the same time.

Auto-scaling

If your CMS is in the Cloud, you may also be able to implement autoscaling. Autoscaling means that as traffic increases, the environment automatically adjusts to support the new load. For example, a new web server or processors would automatically start and load balance with the other web servers to ensure your website performance doesn't decrease or fail.

Content Delivery Networks

Also, consider setting up geographical CDNs to store content and assets that don't frequently change, enabling faster load times. This is particularly helpful for global organizations and if people live in areas where the Internet is stressed.

Digital Workplace Strategy

Along with supporting customers, it's equally critical to support the needs of your employees and partners.

The Intranet

The Intranet can play a crucial role in providing the communications necessary to keep everyone up to date on what is happening with the company. The same way you provide information to your customers on the website, you can do it on the Intranet:

  • Homepage information sections: Replace key areas of your Intranet homepage with important information about the coronavirus and what your organization is doing to support its employees and customers.
  • Alert banners and pop up notifications: These offer critical information you want your employees to see immediately.
  • An FAQ section: Customers aren't the only ones with questions; use FAQs on your Intranet to provide employees with the answers they have to their questions.
  • A message from leadership: Employees need to know the organization is thinking about them and their needs during this time. Personal words from the president or CEO go a long way to assuring employees that they are always top of mind in all planning and decisions.

Timely information is vital in situations like this, so you want to get content created and published as quickly as possible. But you don't want to publish inaccurate information. Create a workflow that vets and approves all content before it is published – both on the customer website and the Intranet.

Access to Software

Along with providing regular communications and information, you also need to provide access to software that employees use from home. To avoid managing multiple logins, you can set up single sign-on from your Intranet, requiring employees to log in to the Intranet and get access to most, if not all, of the systems they use.

You probably aren't used to all your employees working from home, which means you may not have the infrastructure to support a WFH model. Continually monitor the performance of your Intranet and network to ensure it is handling the load appropriately.

Intranets are one of the applications most likely to slow down with increased use. They are generally heavily database-driven and bottle neck on the I/O to the database. An Intranet built on a decoupled CMS allows you to scale up front-end web servers to handle increased load quickly while reserving the database for secondary storage. Using a CMS for your Intranet and websites, also enables digital communicators to create content once for multiple channels and publish it out quickly. This includes content that both your customers and employees need to know delivered to both websites and intranet.

Communication and Collaboration Tools

Just because your employees are not working together physically, doesn't mean they don't need to talk to each other. Employees will need tools to communicate and collaborate:

  • Instant messaging to enable them to communicate whenever they need to.
  • Notification streams to let team members know what the other members are working on.
  • Department or project groups where teams can share and collaborate on documents, including workflows that match their processes.
  • Calendars and company directories to find people and set up meetings.
  • Social tools – similar to the water cooler – because work is not all about working.

Collaboration with Partners

The same collaboration tools that your employees use to work together can also help you work with your partners during a crisis like this one. Providing access to a secure portal where you can share information and work on projects with partners is also essential. It's also a great place to provide partner-specific content related to the crisis.

Supporting Now; Preparing for the Future

There are many things you can do today that help your customers and employees to continue to work almost "as usual." Access to information they need to stay abreast of what is happening and how your company is responding is more important than ever.

Keep in mind the things you do to support your customers during this trying time, also lay the foundation to ensure you are prepared for any future situations that arise.

The most important thing you can do today is over-communicate. Content in a time a crisis is what help people get through these times.

Stay safe. Contact us if you have any questions or need help.

Posted by David Hillis