Managing communications content in crisis situations
On the Content in Practice podcast, Lisa Gibson (Twitter, LinkedIn), who leads the communications team at Microsoft Canada, talks about the content challenges that come when companies need to communicate during a crisis. Produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, theme music by Lee Rosevere.
A transcript of the podcast, edited for clarity, is below. Music used in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions.
- Microsoft Canada
- Microsoft Teams
- Microsoft writing style guide
- Microsoft COVID-19-related resources
- How to use a RACI chart to define content roles and responsibilities
- Articles from Jared Spataro from Microsoft 365:
Content in Practice: The content operations podcast is produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, and presented by Content Strategy Inc. Theme music by Lee Rosevere, Happy Puppy Records.
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Microsoft is a global organization, creating products and services for customers around the world who differ in language, culture, and need. While Microsoft’s various communications departments are usually busy working on content about those products and services, recently staffers have needed to work on a very different communications priority: crisis communications related to COVID-19 and the myriad responses to it.
Lisa Gibson, who like so many of us is working from home right now, is the head of communications for Microsoft Canada. She’s also the business manager for the president of Microsoft Canada, who reports to global CEO Satya Nadella through the global sales and marketing organization. In a conversation with me from Toronto, Lisa explained that the heads of communications teams from across Microsoft meet regularly.
Blaine Kyllo: I assume that there’s lots of collaboration between you and heads of communication in the other territories around the world?
Lisa Gibson: Yeah, there are actually. There’s a ton and even more so, obviously, in a situation like this. So we have very regular meetings with the top about 14 countries in Microsoft. And so the heads of communications we meet regularly, typically in person as well as virtually. So we’ve got a lot of connection points and certainly that’s increased a lot over the last couple of months.
Blaine: So the context of our conversation, of course, is the rapidly progressing pandemic that is COVID-19. And one of the things that I’m really curious about as a content strategist is how the work of content is being done. There’s a lot of content involved, of course, in addition to the communications plans that drive it. How much of that content can be created in anticipation of a crisis like this?
Lisa: I think it depends. What I think is that you’re obviously not going to have the fully-finished content done. But for many years now since I joined Microsoft we actually have a crisis management team that meets on a fairly regular basis and does simulations of different kinds of issues. And coming out of that there are some templates, if you will, for both internal communications and public relations that are in place. That obviously are modified depending on what the issue or the crisis is.
So in a case like this, I wouldn’t say that anyone had predicted a pandemic, but we certainly had some templates to start with along with some some communication guidelines and some guardrails for us as well.
Blaine: So with that work having been done ahead of time, understanding that a lot of the content is specific to the crisis itself, how long does it take then to spin up and put those templates and that draft content into place?
Lisa: It’s really quick. So the way that it has been working, if we look at internal comms and obviously our employees, were top of mind. First and foremost the way that we’ve been working at Microsoft is that our global communications team has been fantastic about sharing templates, which we then adapt for the local market. And so obviously in this situation, if you take for example, work from home scenarios, we’re following the guidance of the local health authorities in terms of whether or not people should be working from home and how we approach that.
So the way that that particular piece worked is our corporate communications team would share drafts of what of the materials they were producing and then we would localize them for the Canadian market. The interesting thing with this piece as well from a content perspective is obviously there was even variables across provinces. So in some cases, some provinces were recommending work from home ahead of others, which obviously then impacts the content if you’re looking at it from a national perspective.
Blaine: But having frameworks in place and practice runs means that you’ve got systems to enable that.
Lisa: Yeah, it was incredibly helpful. Number one, you know the team that you need to connect with, whether that’s HR or legal, so you have everybody lined up, everybody knows their roles and responsibilities. There’s governance that’s set in place ahead of time and so certainly this makes it a lot faster. And you can act a lot more with confidence, right, in these situations. Cause you’ve already been through a number of scenarios and have planned for a lot of different outcomes.
Blaine: You mentioned roles and responsibilities and certainly when it comes to content and content governance, having clear roles and responsibilities is important. To what degree within communications do you have content roles and responsibilities defined ahead of time?
Lisa: It’s very clear. I would say we all know around the world really the communication leads know where we have the ability to make local adaptations. We know who we need to run our final communications through at the corporate level.
And I would say even within our own countries, our leaders have very clear guidelines on when they need to engage us. Who, for example, answers media questions, how we approach customer communications and then of course, employee communications as well. Again, because we had those guidelines in place, it’s pretty clear not only for the communication leads but for everybody across the organization.
Blaine: And in what form do you document those roles and responsibilities? Give me a peek behind the scenes. What does that look like? Are those RACI [responsible, accountable, consulted, informed] diagrams? Do you have other ways that you document what those roles look like?
Lisa: Yeah, so you’re exactly right. We do have RACI documents for sure. What happens in the case of the simulations is we have the receipt documents ahead of time and then once we finished running through the scenario, there’s somebody who’s actually joined part of our crisis management team who actually documents all of this. It’s clear for every scenario we review when we move on to the next scenario, which could be a couple of months apart.
We do this a few times a year, then we review the RACI ahead of time. We would go back over roles and responsibilities. So it’s pretty clear. To your point, especially when this is moving so quickly, it’s really helpful to know all of this in advance and be pretty clear on what the roles are so that you can move really quickly.
Blaine: One of the other things that governance requires is processes and we always recommend that those be documented and that they be diagrammed out and shared so that everybody understands the steps that they go through. Do you have those in place generally for communications to do the work of content?
Lisa: Yes, we do. Again, if we take a look at this particular instance, I think there’s a number of things, right? Where are you getting your information from? You need sources of truth for the information. So in this case it was the World Health Organization or Canadian Health.
We also outline the vehicles that we want to use. And typically as part of our process, we would also speak a little bit about the cadence, right? So in this situation, you want to make sure like timing is critical. You want to make sure that you’re giving the relevant information in the timeframe that you need to deliver it in. You want to communicate to the right degree so that you’re not obviously going out too often as well, creating panic or confusion.
So you just want to make sure that you’re being as transparent as you can, that you’re sharing communications in the right timeframe and that quite frankly, that you’re using the right vehicles. So we have a number of things in place and that is clearly documented. We have a SharePoint site that all employees have access to that has the latest information, resources, and messaging. And we also have other vehicles that we use for more timely updates, whether that’s an email from our president, an update on our Yammer feed. It’s clearly outlined which vehicle we’ll use, how we’ll use it, and who the voices that’s going to be sharing that communication.
Blaine: And again, coordinating that globally would be a really interesting challenge because those platforms, those vehicles, as you call them, are different in every territory.
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. So we get guidance from our corporate communication leads of the vehicles that they’re using and that how they’re disseminating their information. And then we, in response, we build out our own plan based on the vehicles that our employees like to receive the information. So I would say SharePoint and Yammer are pretty standard across Microsoft. That’s a fairly standard way that we would share information. And then, you know, you might see some adaptations per market, but generally speaking, I would say those are probably the two that we use the most.
Obviously from a smaller perspective and for more of our town halls, our regular team meetings, we use Teams a lot. And I would say that in a situation like this, having the ability for video and that ability to connect was really important for us to, so we’ve been integrating teams, you know we’ve, we’ve been doing this at Microsoft obviously for a long time, but certainly it’s become more prevalent and actually having our cameras on and using video has been, has been critical just for just for connection across the teams.
Blaine: There is often a very clear distinction between communicating to internal audiences, like employees, and external audiences, like the customers of products and services, in a crisis like this. How much of that information and how much of that messaging can actually be the same?
Lisa: Well, I think the premise is the same, which is that obviously our first priority is the health and safety of our employees and customers. Then it turns to, you know, we – I’ve mentioned Teams, for example, I’ll just use that as an example – that became one of the vehicles that obviously we use extensively across our organization. And it also became the vehicle that a lot of our customers and partners wanted to use extensively.
So a lot of our communication was really focused on how do you effectively get up and running on Teams. And then, more importantly for a lot of organizations it was around the shifting culture, right? So a lot of people are not used to working remotely like we are. A lot of our communication content really focused on sharing tips and techniques for having effective meetings for running town halls and so on. I think a lot of our content was quite similar in terms of the kinds of tips and techniques that we would share using collaborative tools like Teams.
Blaine: But I would assume that you’ve got frameworks in place so that you can take sort of high level messaging and make sure that it’s clear: to this audience, here’s where we’re going to go with that. Here’s the tweaks that we’re going to make to these messages and the way that we’re going to present that information.
Lisa: Yeah, for sure. Again, there’s a lot of frameworks in place. There’s the overriding messaging and then we also have the ability to adapt locally. So whether that’s for our internal offices or for our external audiences. And so that’s certainly something that we’ve thought about ahead of time and that we continue to get guidance on with this particular crisis just because it is ever evolving and changing. I think the need to stay really connected with our corp comm leaders and with each other has been really key.
Blaine: Yeah. We’re learning every hour, sometimes, it seems like we get new information. So how frequently are those high level meetings happening?
Lisa: At first they were very regular. I can tell you that here in Canada we were meeting as a leadership team and we continue to meet every single day. Every morning we have a quick check in on the communication side. We were meeting three or four times a week and then also sharing regular updates via Teams or emails. So it’s very frequent.
I think it’s been reduced slightly in the last little while just as more and more countries shift to working from home and this becomes a little bit more normal. I think you’re going to see it excel again when it’s time for us to return to work and there’ll be a lot of communication around how do we do that effectively. What does the timing look like? What’s the communication out related to that?
I think definitely a lot more intense, a lot more connections. I think also from a content perspective, you know, just wanting to move really quickly. It’s been fantastic to be able to share some of the materials that we’re producing locally with each other. And so we’re learning a lot from each other and sharing a lot of the best practices that each of us has put in the market. So I think, ongoing, regular communication has been really helpful for all of us.
Blaine: How has your role as head of communications changed in the past month?
Lisa: The planning piece for me has been possibly the most interesting. I mean, obviously right now my role is a lot more agile. I mean, I think when you work in public relations and communications, you’re always moving quickly and you need to work on the fly. But I think it’s that’s just, you know, increased exponentially.
I think more importantly there’s a lot about planning and looking ahead and maybe changing, shifting gears a little bit, like some of the campaigns that we might’ve gone out in market with obviously are not relevant right now. It may not be relevant in the next little while, and so having to figure out what campaigns we want to put in market, what makes sense given the sensitivities and what’s happening.
It’s certainly become a huge focus for me and then obviously making sure my team here in Canada is fully engaged and check in with how they’re doing. In some cases it’s required shifting a bit of priorities on the team and how we’re working. And so it has been a … the role has been quite different I would say over the last month. And I expect that to continue for the next little while as well.
Blaine: That’s it. It’s kind of hard to even think three to six months ahead right now, isn’t it?
Lisa: It is. And I mean, you know, you’ve probably seen this yourself from an events perspective. I mean, we had a number of events planned, most were in person. And so now there’s the obvious shift to digital. Which ones make sense to do digitally? How are we going to show up? I think there’s a lot of elements of our communication strategy that have just shifted. For me, it’s really about being agile and making sure that we’re being sensitive to what what the audience wants to hear and when they want to hear it.
Blaine: Is there anything that you’ve learned in the past few weeks of responding to COVID-19 about the importance of content operations?
Lisa: I mean, I think, I think one of the biggest things is, is what I mentioned earlier is just really around timing. So it’s the balance of: you want to make sure you’re sharing updates in real time and that they’re timely. But I think also you want to make sure, again, that you’re not going out so often and using a variety of different channels that it causes more panic or confusion.
Our biggest learning, obviously, is just utilizing the vehicles that you already have in place, that people are used to receiving information, and making sure that the cadence is the right cadence and that it comes from the right voice who’s credible. And you’ve got one source of truth for information.
Blaine: How do you know if maybe your cadence is off so that you can make adjustments?
Lisa: The one good thing about Microsoft, and particularly when you have the collaboration tools, is that you actually get feedback on a very regular basis from employees. So oftentimes they will share with me how they’re feeling about the communication.
We had a town hall yesterday and I think, you know, in retrospect I probably would have had it a little bit sooner than we did. But we had a town hall yesterday, our president leads it, there’s lots of great content throughout and speakers and we had some really positive feedback. People were thrilled. They shared their open feedback and they said, you know, normally we might only do these once a quarter, but I ask you to consider maybe doing these more frequently.
I think for me it’s about tapping into your employees and getting their feedback and then adjusting your strategy based on that.
Blaine: Tell me something that you and your team have been able to do in this past month that you’re really proud about.
Lisa: We have been able to produce some really inspiring, motivating videos that have received some really positive feedback. Prior to this, we would have had a whole video production crew, editing studios and so on. And we’re all working remotely and yet we’ve still been able to produce some really compelling videos that highlights how our employees are working remotely: while it’s really tough, how they’re making the best of it, what strategies they’re employing for balance and for having fun.
And then we did another video that we showcased yesterday in the town hall just to show how we’re supporting our customers, which obviously is pretty important for us. A lot of our customers are in healthcare and government and so on.
I think the quality of the videos and our ability to turn them around pretty quick has been pretty amazing given, as I said, we’re all working remotely and we don’t have the resources that we might have typically had to produce these.
Blaine: So what is it you think enabled your team to be able to do that? I mean familiarity with the tools that are required as one thing, but what else is kind of required to be able to make that kind of positivity happen?
Lisa: Generally they are positive themselves, which is great. But I also think there’s a really high level of creativity across the team. So in some cases, you know, it was them coming to me with their suggestions. I think that’s, that’s pretty key. I think as, as I mentioned to you before, I think we’re pretty tapped into our employees and the audience. So knowing what’s going to resonate well is pretty critical.
And then to your point, just having a really good understanding of how to use the tools that we have available to us.
Blaine: And there’s lots of those these days.
Lisa: Yes, there are. I mean, obviously, we obviously are in a unique and great position because we are Microsoft and so we are using our tools on a very regular basis. And I think that is one thing that we’ve spent also a great deal of time talking to our colleagues in other organizations about to help, you know, share our skills and our training and so on, so that they feel more comfortable working from home and working remotely as well.
Blaine: For smaller organizations that may not have those same resources, what kinds of things do you think would be essential for them to do to prepare for communicating in a crisis like this?
Lisa: Yeah, I mean, I think organizations large or small can really benefit from having collaborative tools. And so for us, obviously at Microsoft that’s Teams, but whatever collaborative tool you choose to use, I think the value of having a tool like that from an internal communications perspective is it allows you to, you know, share files, to work as though you are together in the same physical space even though you’re not.
And then also, like with my team for example, there’s a lot of emoji sharing and just one-off comments to check in with each other. I think a tool like that, again, whether you’re large or small organization, enables you to work as though you are in an office and knowing that you don’t have a lot of it support. So it’s fairly intuitive. There’s a lot of online trainings about how to use it.
And I just think having a tool like that can really help you from an internal communications perspective. And then also just from, you know, trying to continue business as usual with your regular work.
One of the things that I might reinforce is really around the role that communications can play in a situation like this around the culture piece of it. So we work with a lot of customers who, unlike Microsoft, don’t often work from home. For them, setting up a whole working from home environment not only required them obviously to have the tools and the devices, but for a lot of them they were reaching out to ask us for communication best practices around driving a culture. How do you make sure that your employees are building and balance in their day? What are the best practices around running a meeting or how people stay connected?
And we’ve gotten a lot of questions and requests for our best practices on that front because I think that’s the piece that’s also really new for people. Again, because we were getting asked for a lot of guidance. So we actually have a public-facing blog post where we provide updates on how to use Teams, how to run a meeting, what are some of the best practices.
And in addition to that, I’ve been having regular phone calls with my communication colleagues and other organizations to share that as well.
Blaine: And how important is it do you think for organizations – again, large or small – to have some of those frameworks to do the work of content in place so that when crises happen they can put those templates into play right away?
Lisa: I think it’s critical. I think it goes beyond just the templates and it goes back to some of the conversations you and I had earlier around, you know, roles and responsibilities, being really clear on who’s going to own which piece, where you’re going to gather your information, your source of truth, and then having the templates that you can adapt for the market.
I think it really does enable you to act with confidence and to act really quickly. From my perspective, I think having done those previous simulations, while at the time seems like a large chunk of time, has actually been really beneficial, not only to me, but I think to the other colleagues that are on that, that are on that management team that are responsible for their own areas. And again, whether that’s HR or legal, it’s really enabled us to come together and to be really clear on who owns what, what part of the work and how we can work together quickly.
Blaine: Cause we’re all in this together.
Lisa: Yeah, we are. And you know, I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues around the world and from colleagues in other organizations. So I think coming together has been really helpful.