Copy in the time of coronavirus: a copywriter’s perspective

I haven’t written a blog in some time, though I’ve been busy on LinkedIn, which is where I find most of my work.

I still get about 25% of enquiries through this site, but I do wonder whether, if you’re starting out as a freelance writer, you’d do just as well focusing on one social platform such as LinkedIn.

 

I digress, but then I’ll blame that on Covid-19 or the government’s rather dilatory early approach to its threat, circa February / March 2020. Most people do.

The pandemic has affected us all in strange ways. And the marketing world, can you believe it, hasn’t been immune. Some panic-bought bog roll; marketers churned out content. The two aren’t unrelated.

When the virus hit the fan late March, I was kept busy with crisis communications for some of my clients.

 

On the back of this work, I wrote this on LinkedIn.
“Business as usual...”?
I’ve spent much of the week writing COVID-19 statements for clients (for which I’m grateful – work is bound to dry up some time down the line).
Never has copy aged so quickly.
When conducting initial research – aka sneaking a peek at what everyone else is saying – I was surprised by how many sites declared, even after the official “lockdown”, “Business as usual...”
Business as usual! (I’m sure, in this instance, you’ll forgive the exclamation mark. Desperate times lead to reckless acts of punctuation.)
More seriously, never has honest, upfront, clear communication been more important to your customers.
Your home page has some serious work to do.
If you’re open for business, say so.
If you’re working with a skeleton crew, say so.
If you’re discontinuing some services, say so.
If you’re raising prices and profiteering, shame on you.
You should also help the government spread the message:
“Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”
All the best with “business as usual”, everyone!!!

It clearly wasn’t business as usual as the world went into lockdown and into shock.

It was no time, as a freelancer, to send out those speculative emails. I pretty much ended my own outbound marketing overnight.

Nobody wanted to be sold to, and who could blame them?

 

As the nation – nay, the world – hunkered down, the appetite for advice and corona hacks appeared insatiable. And the internet was happy to oblige.

Social media became awash to saturation point with content about working from home (or WFH), homeschooling, and covid diaries, along with much-mocked celebrity singsongs.

And, as happens with any glut, we got overfull and fed up, and what amuses some irritates the hell out of others.

 

One observation… I especially loved how those who’d been experts on Brexit and international trade agreements and fishing rights were now experts on epidemiology. Who knew? How convenient!

 

As I wrote in one short LinkedIn post:
When someone collars you to reveal the latest about the coronavirus, rest assured you’ll learn nothing new about the coronavirus, but a lot about them.
And if you’re interested in marketing, copywriting and people, it’s all worth storing away in the file marked “Human nature”.

 

As many looked across the debris of lost revenue and contracts, I counted myself one of the lucky ones.

For one, I was used to WFH. Self-isolate? I hardly noticed.

Workwise, I took some hits and I lucked out elsewhere.

I do communication and employability workshops in schools (great for my education copywriting niche and staying up to date). I lost 5 weeks’ work overnight.

I also lost some regular writing gigs. My smaller clients got jittery about cashflow.

I did, however, pick up some work: the already mentioned advice and opinion pieces for clients who wished to showcase their leadership at this time of crisis.

One piece, just shy of 8,000 words for Totaljobs, took the best part of two weeks. Its focus:

"Working from home with kids"

 

Generic the piece above ain’t.

But this was the problem with many advice columns and posts out there at the time. They were too vague to be of any use.

“Working from home? Don’t forget to get dressed. Don’t Zoom from your bedroom.”

That type of thing.

Avoid saying the obvious. It’s basic copywriting.

 

Another observation, while you’re still here, is that, as happens in times of crisis, people got hot under the collar. Even LinkedIn went all aTwitter.

Unable to resist pontificating further, I wrote my own rather vague piece about: “How to write about life under lockdown without ruffling feathers”.

Curiously, the piece struck a chord with many.
It’s difficult to talk about these strange times when everyone’s experience is so different.
Some are enjoying the sunshine in capacious back gardens on their sun loungers, while others are cooped up with kids in blocks of flats.
Some are enjoying the chance to recharge their batteries, reflect on their careers and regale other LinkedInners with their “learnings”, while others have been furloughed with no idea of what the future holds.
Some enjoy telling everyone else what they’ve been doing with all this extra time on their hands, while some would love the luxury of self-isolation, but every day they force themselves out to work on hospitals wards, on public transport, in shops, or to keep the peace.
Some are enjoying all that extra “quality” time with their families. For some, however, home isn’t a safe place. And many have now lost loved ones.
So, how do you write about life under lockdown without ruffling feathers?
It’s not possible perhaps.
At the very least, tread carefully. Say less. Listen more. Refrain from judgement.

 

When it came to writing under lockdown, I clung to one piece of advice amidst the wreckage: write from the comforts of your niche.

In the main, I wrote about writing, communication, and the world of education.

The powers that be gave us plenty to enjoy when it came to how – or how not – to communicate.

Reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

I defended the government’s “Stay alert” mantra, but then faced a barrage of criticism. That’ll learn me.

I wrote:
I’m surprised that the “Stay alert – control the virus…” slogan has been criticised as vague.
Since when were slogans about specificity?
Think “Keep calm and carry on”.
Still, here are a few alternatives.
(inspired by / adapted from the best slogans of all time.)
Stay alert. Just do it. Because you’re worth it.
Coronavirus – it’s the real thing.
Do they or don’t they? Physical distancing saves lives.
It could be you. Keep your distance.
It’s not time to have it your way.
Time to walk a mile to work.
Say it with social distancing. Keep 2 metres apart when out and about.
Stay at home if you can because Covid's complicated enough.

 

One of the best sources of content, and good advice to follow, is to write “behind the scenes” or “the view from here” pieces. In other words, offer sneaky peaks of what you know and live on a daily basis.

I write as a former teacher. I deliver the earlier mentioned workshops in schools across the South West. My dad was a headteacher. My wife’s a teacher. Our son’s in Year 5. A legion of our friends are teachers. Half of my clients are in education. I live and breathe… education.

I’m reasonably well placed to write about what’s going on in classrooms and corridors across the nation.

Hence several pieces defending teachers and explaining that, no, they weren’t taking a “corona holiday”. Schools never shut.

In one post, I wrote:
It’s amazing how my ten-year-old son’s teachers have risen to the challenge of remote schooling.
This morning, his form tutor gave – no, performed – an assembly on respect, commencing with a rendition of “Respect”, complete with piano accompaniment.
I could cite countless other instances of his school’s ingenuity and invention. Some of the staff sketches on social media are hilarious. Big up Rev Tom, who is always game for a laugh, whether it’s on the sports field, in the music hall, modern languages lab, or kitchen.
Teachers seldom get the respect they truly deserve. We’ve all been to school, so we all think we could do the job of teaching. The profession lacks the mystique of others.
Yet this is another example of how the pandemic puts us all under the microscope. And schools across the country are showing themselves more than up for the challenge.
Karen Brookes-Ferrari, it may be a case of the swan’s busy legs hidden from view under the surface, but Exeter School is acing it with remote schooling.

Coronavirus only increased our appetite for productivity posts...

Morning routines of the rich and famous … we love ’em.

I wrote this:
Opium and croissants, anyone?
That’s how Proust kicked off his day.
Balzac swore by his daily 50 cups of coffee. Which no doubt went on to kill him. (He died at the age of 51, of heart failure.)
Other barmy habits or routines include Benjamin Franklin walking about naked in the mornings, or PG Wodehouse doing his “daily dozen” calisthenic exercises.
We writers often fetishize the writing habits of the greats. We’ll try anything, to be honest.
After three years of freelancing from home, these three routines maintain my momentum.


🌳 🐕 🚶 Long walks – so many writers swear by this. Along with the physical benefits, they’re great for mental health and agility, which is why, even with the threat of contagion, the powers that be permit us to get out once a day. We’d go mad otherwise.

📚 🧑 📚 Dipping into books: reference books, books of quotations, dictionaries, and the like. “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” is brilliant. Dip in at random, find an idea, see where it takes you. Or, better still, combine two.

⛱ 😎 🌞 Changing location as sunlight chases me around the house. Yup, I have heard of blinds, but changing a lightbulb is the full extent of my DIY skills. A change of scenery often oils the wheels of creativity.

 

Among many, the general mood was one of exhaustion, especially for those frazzled parents in a funk over remote schooling:

I wrote that “Remote schooling doesn’t mean homeschooling”.

 

Many of you are feeling the pressure of playing teacher while juggling work commitments.

Remember:

  1. Teachers are frazzled too. Teaching and setting work remotely are proving exhausting. It’s all so new.
  2. Teachers are doing their best, in trying circumstancing. And they expect no more from children or their parents. They know that parents are busy, which is why they’re trying to keep the children occupied and entertained.
  3. It’s not easy setting work for mixed abilities. For every child who feels overwhelmed, another feels underwhelmed. Teachers are very mindful of this, hence the setting of some rather open-ended tasks.
  4. If your child doesn’t complete the work in the alloted time, the world won’t end. They may want to spend another five or ten minutes on the task, but no more.
  5. Let teachers know, when the time is right, how long work is taking. It’s not always easy to gauge. Teachers will always welcome the feedback. They want to work with you.

 

And in response to people’s dislike of the warfare imagery used to describe the pandemic, I wrote:

Marching as to war
“You can’t scare a virus,” writes Max Brooks, author of “World War Z”. Others point out that the virus, if it has any view at all, sees us as a convenient host, rather than the enemy.
However much metaphors illuminate the unfamiliar, every analogy breaks down eventually.
Moreover, metaphors fulfil an emotional need (hence their popularity with copywriters.) And they’re a means of emphasis, as much as a tool for explanation or analysis.
Metaphors motivate; they’re a call to arm. They galvanise us to do battle. To stiffen the sinews. Summon up the blood.
The allusion to war calls for a collective effort against a common enemy.
As long as we don’t take metaphors as the complete picture, or as a way to organise our plan of attack, we’ll be fine.
If they highlight the need for seriousness, self-sacrifice and courage for the common good, good.
If they highlight the bravery of those on the frontline, all the better.

 

Well done if you’ve made it, unscathed, to the end of this rather rambling piece.

Thanks for indulging me.

 

I had to feed the SEO beast.

We’re all slaves to those algorithms.

Content remains king.

If you’re looking for content to sacrifice at the altar of those algorithms, get in touch.

For more on my LinkedIn activity and ramblings, take a look at my profile.

I’ve done a lot of reading over the last few months, away from screens and anything that might remind me of the “new normal” and the unprecedented preponderance of the word “unprecedented”.

The poets and philosophers provide the perfect antidote to the usual pabulum, my own included.

 

I’ll finish with some scraps from W. H. Auden’s “Spain”.

The lockdown won’t last forever.

 

“...today the struggle.

...Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people's army.
Tomorrow, perhaps the future.
...
Tomorrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.
Tomorrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
the photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty's masterful shadow;
Tomorrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,
The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
...
Tomorrow for...
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.”