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Writing about COVID-19 (while making people’s lives better)

Writing about COVID-19 (while making people’s lives better)

When Mahlab’s HRM editor, Girard Dorney, shifted gears to writing COVID-19 content, getting page views was easy. Harder was saying something different that resonated with the audience while not adding to the panic. Here’s how he did it.

When Mahlab’s HRM editor, Girard Dorney, shifted gears to writing COVID-19 content, getting page views was easy. Harder was saying something different that resonated with the audience while not adding to the panic. Here’s how he did it. 

You’ve got to give it to anxiety, it focuses the mind. Love flows, anger lashes out, but anxiety locks its eyes on one thing — the threat — and does not blink.

So when you’re part of the team behind a content hub that publishes daily content, and all societies all over the world are becoming more anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic, you really don’t have much of a choice. If you don’t write about the threat, your readers will stop reading.

Losing readers, however, is not your biggest problem. Because here’s the other thing about anxiety: it’s usually unhealthy. 

The exception is if the threat is imminent. If you’re trying to deal with a nearby bear, for example, anxiety is your ally. Can you imagine initially focusing on the bear but then drifting off into a thought tangent about Paddington Bear and pondering whether there were ever bears in England (there were!), only to remember you’re dealing with a live 600 kg mammal and now you don’t know where it is? 

Anxiety has your back here.

But if you’re at home reading the news and trying to figure out how you should behave in the middle of a global pandemic, anxiety doesn’t have your back. Instead it’s on your back, whispering terrifying things in your ear. 

If you see someone in your life who looks frazzled, ask them how much of the content they’re paying attention to is about COVID-19. Nine times out of 10 they are going to tell you it’s a lot. And their media diet isn’t going to be official guidelines. It’s going to be live blogs and alarmist content that uses words such as “staggering”, “horrifying” and “chaos”.

So yeah, losing readers is bad. What’s worse is getting more readers and making their lives worse. How do you overcome these two challenges? Here was our approach: 

  • Be different
  • Be correct
  • Hit the right tone

Rule 1: Be different.

It might seem like there are endless topics to talk about when there is a global pandemic that is pretty much affecting every living human in some way. But you wouldn’t know it from the news.

Just limit yourself to the Australian workplace news and you’ll see everybody is writing about JobKeeper; everybody is writing about anxiety; everybody is writing about working from home. 

Granted, these are the topics that people are generally interested in. But if you just write an article that reiterates the same ordinary points as everyone else, what’s the point? 

From experience, you might get decent engagement. But that audience will not return. “I get what they do,” they’ll say.

To paraphrase some lines from the movie Margin Call, there are three ways to make content that will both get solid engagement and win you a consistent audience. Be first, be smarter or cheat. 

Be first? Be smarter? Or cheat?

Being first is not an option for a lot of content makers. Unless you have the resources of Nine or Newscorp you just aren’t going to be able to break that much new news, or hire the number of people you need to be consistently ahead of the op-ed cycle.

Cheating is actually a viable option, as much as I hate to admit it. And it happens more often than you think. I mean, it’s not really cheating in the sense that you are breaking the law. But your audience will feel cheated if they really investigate what you’re doing.

In this context, cheating means quickly reading content somewhere else and smashing out a mirroring article that you then spruik to your audience as new. The problem with this is the quality of your work suffers — you don’t have time to add anything new and chances are you will miss nuance. 

The other way to cheat is to write clickbait. Take an idea that already exists and make the sauciest headline you can, even though it’s not reflective of what’s in the article.

For HRM, the news site for the Australian HR Institute, with a dedicated audience of HR professionals who we reach through a daily e-newsletter, social amplification and organic search traffic, we don’t have the resources to be first. We also don’t cheat, not just because it’s wrong but also because, in the very long run, I think your audience will cotton on and resent you.

Go with smarter. 

That leaves being smarter. We want to write about anxiety in this day and age, so how do we do that in a way which is still valuable? 

First comes the angle. We noticed we were seeing anxiety in others and realised we had no idea what to do about it. So our angle wasn’t ‘this is how you deal with anxiety’; it was ‘this is how you help your panicked co-worker or employee’. 

But what do we know about that? How do you actually give new information here? 

We talked to two psychologists and asked them everything we wanted to know about helping a coworker with anxiety. The article covers everything from detecting anxiety, to initially approaching someone, to the specific techniques you use during a panic attack. It also touches on the phenomenon where a colleague is sharing panicked news on company channels.

You can see other examples. We wrote about JobKeeper by doing a super-thorough, frequently updated guide that goes into eligibility requirements and criticisms of the scheme. We wrote about working from home by talking to two astronauts who had trained their whole lives for isolation.

Being smarter means looking at the wider conversation, and seeing what you can add. Read what other people are doing and ask yourself what they’ve missed. Also ask yourself if the conversation is centered on the wrong thing – is the focus on business losing sight of the effect on people, for example?

You don’t even have to be that creative. The JobKeeper article was just us noticing that nobody had tried to write one article that captured everything. We bet that our audience would like to be able to simply read one piece and be done with it, rather than searching for things our story was obviously missing.

Rule 2: Be correct

This section is much shorter, because the lesson is simple. If you aren’t correct — if your content contains errors — it will eventually come back to bite you so hard you will wish you had encountered that bear we were talking about.

People out there are anxious. If you write something that not only makes them a little more scared, but makes them more scared for no reason? Because you accidentally lied? Jeff Bezos couldn’t buy enough PR to save your arse.

Rule 3: Hit the right tone

Anxiety is inherent to COVID-19. People get it, they spread it to the people they love, and it can be fatal. So you can’t write about it and kid yourself that it will be free from any note of anxiety.

What you can do is write in a way that limits panic. A few pointers:

  • Writing factually, without embellishment, is a solid choice. Nothing reduces feelings of anxiety more than someone talking to you straight. We went this route with an article about pandemic leave and awards changes.
  • Try to aim for a feeling of reassurance and togetherness. Become a little more personal. One of our writers repurposed a magazine story she had done on privacy at work to account for all the privacy issues arising in this pandemic. It’s a solid article that delves into many complicated topics, but she began and ended on her own feelings. Done right, this gives people access to their own feelings and tells them they are not alone.
  • You don’t have to talk about our own feelings to be reassuring. You can also adopt the voice of thoughtful leadership. This is something I often aim for. In fact, an article I wrote recently about how to talk to staff about job insecurity has a conclusion that fits for this piece too. So, in the spirit of ‘showing is better than telling’, here you go:

“There’s a boxing saying that goes, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’. The point of the aphorism is not that you shouldn’t have plans. It’s that our reaction to pain is often instinctual. Our emotions get the better of us and we don’t follow through on the actions we know are correct.

The whole world just got punched in the face. The challenge now is to react steadily, and communicate clearly.”

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