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Five takeaways from COVID-19 digital communications projects

We have helped a number of organizations to create, build and refine, or update their existing websites in response to the pandemic. We rolled up our sleeves to help teams at the federal, state, and city levels to ramp up their emergency response communications.

After working with these amazing dedicated people as they responded to the pandemic, we have compiled five takeaways for collaborating with urgency and purpose.

1. The scope can and should be flexible in an emergency.

As tempting as it is to spend a lot of time upfront defining and refining exactly what will be done, get comfortable with ambiguity. Start before you nail down the scope. Distilling simplicity from complexity takes time, you will need to be comfortable with ambiguity and start before you have a final endpoint in mind.

The team working on the coronavirus.wa.gov website achieved this by addressing the most immediate needs first and looking for themes among the latest update requests. Not only did this approach get the most urgent data up quickly, but it allowed the team to grow and adapt the purpose of the site based on the emerging themes.

In one instance, the team noticed a huge growth in resources and guidance for businesses as they adapted their offerings to meet state and county guidelines. Noticing this trend and embracing it led the website team to evolve and build out the information architecture to serve businesses and flex for future related content.

2. If a project needs to move quickly, communication is key.

In crisis communications, it is important to have frequent touch-points. Things can change in a matter of minutes as information comes in, so the direction of your website and the needs of its users can also change. Create opportunities to check in with your cross-functional team and clarify what is needed and whose input or approval is necessary. Don’t let communication become a blocker.

Teams often use multiple communication channels at different times depending on the urgency and type of conversation. Having a chat is wonderful for quick questions and clarifications, a message board is great for feedback and getting multiple opinions before making decisions, and a weekly call can provide time for updates and clearing up blockers.

3. Have the right people in the conversation.

If you are rapidly iterating and developing, the right people must be in the room to answer questions as they come up – well, the right people must be available, perhaps via Zoom or chat. They’re likely to NOT be in the same room these days. A multidisciplinary team allows each person to bring knowledge from their field and provide support and guidance to other team members quickly. This can shorten the time needed between iterations and eliminate the “passing things over the fence” feeling that can result from a waterfall approach.

Have a lead developer available to make sure that a solution is technically possible to create can move the process along faster. They can make a judgment call within moments of a concept being pitched. Have a designer available to recommend changes to the interactions or colors in real-time. An accessibility expert can assist with designs and review during implementation to make sure that features are accessible to all audiences. Invite the copywriter to make sure that the language is being presented intuitively. Each team member should show respect for others’ insights and expertise.

Have a mix of people at the table who are in the thick of doing the actual work and others who can take a step back and see the overarching picture. It’s also important to have access to connected individuals with the power to resolve questions, pull in additional resources, remove obstacles, and champion the team’s efforts. In many cases, projects may require multi-agency coordination and collaboration between organizations that do not typically work together.

For example, leaders at the National Lab Partnering Service asked how can our organization help with COVID-19? They championed a coordinated effort across all of the Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories to leverage existing technologies, subject matter expertise, resources, and provide technical assistance to combat COVID-19.

4. Be willing to adapt and try new things.

When the situation and needs are ever-changing, no amount of planning will compensate for adaptability. Being action-oriented allowed the teams we worked with to sense a need and respond – ultimately providing the best and latest information available, more and more effectively. On the best teams, each member was willing to listen, engage, and be flexible when others raised important issues or changes. This willingness to try ideas was embraced in many ways – like restructuring an information architecture around types of visitors, or in rolling out a chatbot to quickly answer the public’s most common questions about COVID-19 as phone calls overwhelmed support centers.

Be open to making changes. People faced with timelines and urgency have the choice to be reluctant, or embrace opportunity and be willing to try new things. Keep this in mind and be courageous in the solutions you try.

5. Recognize what you have accomplished.

Honoring the work that has been done and recognizing your team’s progress often propels you to identify that more needs to be done. Maybe your first iteration was just getting information on your website as quickly as possible. Then you stepped back and realized you needed to go further to make sure users could read and find information. Acknowledge the effort that you put in and get ready to do the next pieces of work that need to be done. Thank your team for their hard work and sacrifice.


Whether you’re working on a project related to an emergency response to a disaster or not, the lessons above can be used to create a team process with more trust, ownership, and rapid progress. Embracing a flexible scope and good communication allows for agility. Having the right people who are empowered to try things creates newness and progress. Acknowledging the work that has been done sets up a solid foundation of respect and positivity that allows for future growth. A central lesson that we’ve learned through our collaborations with organizations like the Department of Energy, the City of Seattle, and the Washington State Coronavirus Response website, is that people truly step up in an emergency. A common purpose and clear urgency pull together professionals in ways that make our work together something to be truly proud of.

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