“Extreme content strategy” How CMI are meeting the Covid-19 challenge

How does an organisation whose mission is to promote good leadership itself show leadership at a time of international crisis?

It has been eye-opening to work with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) as the Coronavirus pandemic has escalated.

Think has worked with the CMI for a number of years. We produce CMI’s quarterly magazine as well as online content about leadership and management. We work to well-organised schedules. We plan ahead. We create content aligned to CMI’s core themes. We schedule content to work alongside planned events, awards and announcements.

Trouble ahead

At the end of the week of 9 March and over the weekend of 14 and 15 March, as the situation worsened and Britain moved towards lockdown, that well-drilled machine had to be re-engineered.

The spring edition of CMI’s magazine was just about to go to press, so before Think’s offices closed we were able to make some last-minute changes. The magazine’s theme was already appropriate – managing through uncertainty – but into the mix we brought in a contribution from the renowned author Margaret Heffernan about epidemic preparedness.

We also moved the cover away from a focus on Brexit (remember that?) to this simple but troubling treatment. (The Brexit cover will go into that large folder of great creative treatments that never reached the light of day.)

Out with the old

At the beginning of the week of 16 March the Think-CMI team had to do some fast thinking. CMI quickly put together a cross-functional team that included membership, marketing, social media, research, policy and external affairs to work with Think’s content and account management leads. CMI’s own executive was determined to support its membership at a difficult time and to provide its community of learners, apprentices and managers with the kind of advice and guidance that they would need in the weeks ahead. It was clear that managers would be in the frontline of a dynamic and hugely challenging period.

By the beginning of the week of 16 March, the whole Think-CMI team was working from their homes. Meetings would be held via Google hangouts.

During the first couple of hangouts we decided to park out existing, planned content and move into hyper-responsive mode. The CMI membership community needed quality, regular information. We decided on a twice-weekly newsletter send. CMI’s chief executive Ann Francked also committed to holding a regular Friday lunchtime ‘Better Managers Briefing’ webinar. These would be open for members and non-members; this was a time to reach out. Responsiveness, openness and clarity were the leadership characteristics we wanted to promote; we also wanted to live up to them ourselves in our work. 

The first special CMI newsletter went out to all members and students on Wednesday 18 March, just two days after our first full-team hangout. Ann Francke wrote a powerful lead piece. We also featured some powerful guidance about homeworking, as well as a story titled ‘What if you can’t work from home during the Covid-19 outbreak’, a story that performed very well.

We gave a lot of thought to the selection of stories, the tone, the subject line, even the preview text (the bit below the subject line). We knew that, at a desperately difficult time, each element had to be right. For the tone, we agreed ‘calm, pragmatic but not sugarcoating the gravity of the situation’. For the subject line, we decided in the end on the simple ‘The moment for real leadership’.

The approach has seemed to work well, and CMI saw a high level of engagement among its membership community (more than double the usual open rates for some member segments). Ann and her team promoted the content via social media. CMI’s marketing team was also able to send a supporting SMS message to point members to the featured stories. This triggered a lot of engagement.

As Matt Roberts, CMI’s membership director, puts it: “What’s really notable about this Covid-19 crisis is how so many people are turning to traditional, trusted sources such as professional bodies for their information. This past week, for instance, we’ve seen unprecedented open rates for our CMI Better Managers newsletters, across all types of members and learners.”

After the initial flurry of activity, we’ve settled quickly into a new, albeit urgent rhythm. The joint team works around one core shared Google document.

By the end of week one, CMI’s team had already created and gone live with a new Covid-19 hub, called ‘Leading in the Covid-19 crisis’. This is the home for all the fresh content that’s being created as well as any useful pre-existing resources. Engagement has continued to very high across all online and social channels. CMI’s research team has reached out to members to get their views on the challenges they’re facing, and we’ll use the findings to inform the next phases of content.

We’re producing  a range of different types of content. A few highlights: a specially commissioned video from the back garden of a superteacher-and-Chartered Manager on how to turn isolation into a personal growth opportunity; a ‘manager’s diary’ featuring a new interview every day; and a brilliant exclusive article by the award-winning leadership guru Jo Owen entitled simply ‘How to have a good crisis’.

The teams at Think and CMI are determined to have a good crisis. We’re working at an accelerated pace, listening hard to member and market concerns. Balls get dropped every now and then, sometimes the plans don’t work exactly as we hoped, but by then a new set of challenges are coming through and have to be faced. Our hangouts buzz with great ideas and camaraderie.

As Jo Owen put it in the article he wrote for us: “Leaders are like teabags: you only find out how good they are when they land in hot water”. Working together, the teams at Think and CMI are doing our bit to help those leaders to be the best they can be at an incredibly demanding time.

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