Writing content during times of crisis

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Mark Wiggins

Content Specialist


Content Marketing

Crafting content that hits all the right notes when putting across your brand’s tone of voice and message can be tricky at the best of times, but trying to do that when the world is in crisis takes on a whole new level of difficulty. 2020 is the perfect example of a time when brands across the globe have had to take several about-turns on planned campaigns, key messaging, and all kinds of content.

This has left marketers asking several questions when planning and producing content – do we address what’s going on? How do we say it? How will people perceive what we’re doing? There’s no simple answer to any of these questions – your brand, the nature of the crisis, and so much more should influence your response. While we hope that this is the last crisis anyone will have to deal with in their lifetime, here are nine key things to take on board when writing content during a time of national or international crisis so that if there is a next time, you are prepared.

1. Ditch the sales talk… at first anyway

Early in the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the word ‘profiteering’ became commonplace. It left content writers feeling twitchy about whether an internal product link or a call-to-action felt too brash or insensitive. Try to think extra hard about the language you use in your calls-to-action and only promote products or services that really add value. For instance, an office supply company linking to their office desks in an article about working from home makes sense – it adds value to the content and improves user experience. If the reader gets the sense that you’re tenuously linking to an unrelated product off the back of a crisis in order to boost sales, it won’t look good.

There will come a time when things must return to normal and that’s when you can get back to your brand messaging.

2. Avoid clichés

One thing is certain in these unprecedented and uncertain times… We’re all in this together…

Another thing that is certain is that people very quickly become tired of reading the same paint-by-number statements coming from brands. It can be so easy to get sucked into cliché. How many  emails did you read in March and April 2020 that started with “We hope you’re well in these unprecedented times”? Probably quite a few. How many TV adverts in that same period (and beyond) used the concept of staff filming reassuring messages on camera phones? Far too many. It ends up feeling uninspired and ingenuine.

Avoiding clichés and really thinking about what you want to say and how to say it is vital; now is the time to really lean on that tone of voice you’ve spent time and effort carefully crafting.

3. Don’t forget what you do

In the early stages or immediate aftermath of any sort of crisis or civil unrest, there undoubtedly must be time for quiet and reflection. As people move on, it is important to focus on who you are as a brand and what you do – dwelling on a situation and repeatedly trying to reference it isn’t always necessary, and in some instances it can put off your audience and make you seem irrelevant. Once you feel things have begun to regain some sense of normality, move back to what it is you do.

It’s worth noting that some content plans might need to be thrown out of the window or paused even as you return to normal – for example, there may be topics you had planned which would be insensitive to discuss right away. Thinking of your tone of voice as a ‘living thing’ rather than rules set in stone will allow you to adapt to situations and change with the times.

4. Reassure your customers and audience

Prolonged periods of difficult times naturally unsettle people. Taking the coronavirus pandemic as an example, people were scared about everything from their health to their jobs and even where they were going to get their next toilet roll from. As a brand, your job in times like this is to reassure people and help them in any way possible. Messages such as “we can help you through this” from a bank or “we’ll see you all again soon” from a chain of pubs or restaurants convey the reassuring message people need to hear when everything feels a bit strange. Sometimes a sense of normality is all the reassurance your audience need – a reminder of the fact that, despite the challenges, life will go on.

Of course, there is a thin line here between reassuring and stepping into cliché territory – really consider what it is your brand would say in these situations, rather than opting for something that seems popular at the time.

5. Timing is everything

Things move fast. This rule applies at almost any time in marketing, but even more so when there’s a major global or national event taking place. It’s more important than ever to read the news, follow developments and be prepared to make drastic changes at the last minute – timing really is everything in these situations and being reactive in your tone and content is vital.

Every situation is different but making sure you get the timing right is key. Whether you’re about to outreach a survey about holidays that you’ve spent huge amounts of time and resource on during a no-fly quarantine, or you’ve got a whimsical, fun campaign due to go live on the day of a civil rights protest – you may have to take undesirable or unforeseen action that will throw your strategy off kilter in order to save face.

Fortunately, being reactive in these situations doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. If your brand has a unique solution to issues consumers and businesses face during times of crisis, working fast to get this message out can be great for brand awareness and sentiment.

6. Think about everything you say… No – really think

As content writers, it can be too easy to sit down at the keyboard and switch on auto mode, churning out the same content, in the same tone of voice, sending the same brand message you always send. What’s wrong with that? Everything.

Relying on the same tone of voice handbook you put together a few years ago or inherited when you started writing content for your brand is at best lazy, and at worst – particularly during major events – damaging. When writing reactive copy in the middle of or after a global or nationwide incident, it’s more important than ever to think twice, three times, four times about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.

Jumping back to the example of 2020, the civil unrest caused by the Black Lives Matter protest called for both individuals and brands to take action and speak out, yet many did so without really considering how they could make a difference and so their contributions fell flat. Sometimes saying nothing has more value than an empty sentiment.

7. Be conscious of how things may develop

If you’re creating content in the middle of a large global event, it’s important to consider how things could develop and if the landscape could change. Is the message you are sending out now something that could age badly? Sometimes it’s best to wait until a situation is over and you have had time to reflect on what has happened before making your comment. This makes it less likely you’ll get stung if things change dramatically, as well as giving you time to educate yourself on the topic.

The same can be said for pulling content before it goes live. Few people could have predicted that a civil rights movement would happen during a pandemic and shift focus very quickly away from it, so if your planned content now seems irrelevant or insensitive then get rid of it.

8. Don’t let creativity suffer

Creativity, fun and excitement are the things we all need to make life interesting and bright, and many consumers look to their favourite brands to provide this creativity and entertainment in their day to day lives. While strange circumstances may restrict some of the content and topics your brand would normally produce, this shouldn’t mean letting creativity suffer. If anything, these situations can be used as an opportunity to find different and exciting ways to spread your brand message.  These situations change your audience – from the solutions they need, to the content they consume. Rather than see this as something to be afraid of, see it as an opportunity to engage in new ways and develop your brand.

A phrase which has definitely been overused as of late is the ‘new normal’, but cliché aside this is actually a good point. Writing after a major event or crisis involves creating content for a different world, full of people with a different perspective to the one they had months, weeks, even days ago. Be creative and find your place in this ‘new normal’.

9. Stay tapped into the public mood

During difficult times, people find their inboxes crammed full of ‘best wishes’ emails from faceless corporations. You might feel like telling your customers that you’re “thinking of them during this trying time” is a great thing – it’s better to be thoughtful and conscientious, right? Rather than go for a blanket approach, consider the public mood and identify what people want from your industry. Maybe they just want a slice of normality. Maybe they want practical advice.

Do your research. Tap into the mood of the public. Tailor the content to what they want and what fits with your brand.

Writing content during major events and crises is not an easy thing to do. But, if you slow things down a little and consider every move, you can navigate these waters until things get back to somewhere near normal. Every business and brand is different, so try to stick to what feels right for you.

Need help during the pandemic?Check out our COVID-19 resources


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