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Five tips for using content to prepare for any comms crisis

It’s a bad day for your comms team when the Prime Minister stands up in Parliament to criticise the work that you’re doing.

But that was exactly what happened to HS2’s comms team in February, when Boris Johnson commented: "I cannot say that HS2 limited has distinguished itself in the handling of local communities.”

Indeed, the beleaguered transport project was last year accused of repeated failures in communication, not being open and transparent, and “broken promises” in its treatment of people whose homes are under threat.

Where HS2 went wrong

What went wrong? Well, the mistake is not peculiar to HS2 – although most can think themselves lucky that they have not been publicly dissed by Boris. We’ve seen then same issue lately with other high-profile, crisis-hit brands like Johnson & Johnson. And for all, the problem was there well before these recent crises hit.

Take a look at HS2’s website and its social media channels. What do you see? Lots of information about the perceived benefits; the planned route; how the vast amounts of money are being spent on the new network. Useful information, much of which we already know. But something is missing.

How do HS2’s staff feel about taking part in this huge infrastructure project? What are their feelings about the challenges they face? And how about the people affected by the route – how are their views being recognised and discussed?

HS2 did not do enough to invest in creating a human face in the good times, and because of this, it has nothing to fall back on in the bad times.

How to get it right

This is where great content would have worked wonders. Good PR programmes can help you to change reputation incrementally, but content creation when done well will help you take much bigger reputational leaps.

Here are my five tips for content-led comms that will give you a human face before the crisis hits.

1. Use your workforce as a story generator

Employees are the voice of an organisation’s culture – they offer an abundant source of content. Getting away from your desktop – and out of the head office bubble – is key to finding great stories.

One comms leader from a major global utilities company told me: “Your own staff are such an asset. It’s about finding content in the company as well as outside the company. The biggest mistake communications and marketing teams make is staying in head office. Everybody in my team is now spending at least a day once a week working outside of head office, talking and getting to know the business – that’s where we 88% of our content.”

Positive example: As well as a lifestyle journal with top tips on caring for your bouquets, letterbox florist Bloom&Wild also runs Code&Wild – a tech and brand culture blog, offering insights from its team.

2. Don’t miss the content train

Process is key to getting great stories live in timely and relevant way – and you shouldn’t have to compromise on quality to hit a trend. One comms head told me: “Most of the time we want to get the content right. But the problem with spending too long on a piece is that by the time it’s ready to go live, we’ve missed whatever newsworthy trend we were aiming for. So, I’m happy to 90% of the way there in terms of the story. That last layer of polishing is not necessary.”

Editorial-style content is fluid, dynamic and can be revisited post-publication, not an ad-style campaign with only a single shot at success.

Positive example: A brand that helps customers capture fast-paced moments on the go, it’s not surprising that GoPro has a consistent output of posts that include action camera tips and user-generated content.

3. Have a view on wider issues outside your own news

Content needs a purpose beyond a loud and blaring “me, me, me”. Give your company an outside voice if you want to grow your audience and widen your impact. At a recent event, one speaker said: “We have a commitment that only 50% of our content is about us. It’s an opportunity to give your company a persona and show you’re interested in doing something for the greater good.”

Positive example: Ebay’s Open for Business podcast interviews start-up owners about everything from hiring, to “customer service in the digital era”.

4. Have a sense of humour

Using humour in content is effective because it’s a natural element of conversation. If we’re to believe that content is about having an engaging interaction with the audience, what better way to break the ice than with a joke? Humour is just as effective in building relationships with stakeholders as it is as a social lubricant in our daily lives. Finding ways to use well-placed humour in a content strategy can be a huge benefit, particularly if you’re focusing on video and social platforms.

Positive example: Despite a recent rebrand, Brewdog still knows not to take itself too seriously – its video content features a ‘Drinktionary’ as well as ‘The Nerdy Bartender’ how-to series, with cocktail recipes inspired by Monty Python, The Simpsons and Marvel villains.

5. Give the world an authentic reflection of your culture

People want a lot more from your brand than products and services. They want to support brands who reflect their own beliefs and values. Content is a great way to get across your authentic purpose. By sharing your whole self and providing transparency into your brand, you can bring people into your story by introducing them to the people, places, and values that make you who you are.

Positive example: Barclays content covers the causes supported by the bank’s colleagues, thought leadership on tech innovations, the values powering fledgling businesses, and flashbacks to the organisation’s history. Full transparency: this is work that Speak Media is involved in.

Written by Paul Williams, head of planning and production at content agency Speak Media

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