How Deep Is Your Publication Team Backup?

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By Theresa Witham

In early March, the CUES leadership team asked each department to consider how we would complete our work in the event of staffing shortages due to COVID-19.

We were charged with answering the following three questions.  

Question 1: In the event that you are not able to fulfill your role, who is your alternate for leading your area or coordinating your work? Please answer for every position in your respective areas. Also include information about how we would respond if freelancers cannot fulfill their work.

The CUES publications department is small, consisting of three editors, including myself. For this question, we designated each of us as overall backup to the others. In the next question, we went through each project, task by task to identify specific backup gaps.

But we also work with several freelancers and contributors, including writers, designers and videographers. Here, we created a master spreadsheet of all freelancers and regular contributors and included the following information:

Name, Location, Phone, Email

Their area of expertise (such as writer, video, topic of interest, etc.)

Current assignment with due date

Backup plan in case they become unavailable (the backup plan for each was either another freelancer, a CUES editor or, in the case of our regular industry writers, the decision to skip their next column).

Then, we emailed each individual to let them know how CUES was responding to the coronavirus crisis and asked them to keep us updated in case their work became interrupted due to illness or shelter in place ordinances. At the same time, we offered many of them new assignments as we ramped up our COVID coverage for

Question 2: What are the absolutely critical, bare-minimum functions that must be completed by your department every single week without fail? Consider whether there is anything that would dramatically impact our ability to keep the doors open. (The answer may be that there aren't any essential weekly functions.) 

Here, we identified online content creating and posting to our website at as a critical weekly function. And then we answered these questions:

Who is responsible for each critical function?

Who is cross trained for each critical function?

What would happen if a critical function couldn't be completed for an extended period (e.g. a month)?

What is the minimum operating structure needed to complete the critical functions? How many people/hours/resources needed?

Question 3: How would you prioritize your department’s work from most-to-least important? Consider what we might stop doing, at least temporarily, in the event of extreme staff shortages.

Next, the editorial team spent time going through our entire list of individual and department projects, down to the task level and answered the same questions as above. We also added a worst-case scenario for each project. For example, for our monthly print magazine, we said we could produce smaller issues first, then fewer issues as a last resort.  

Because we already use a project management program called Workfront, most of our work was already broken down into very detailed tasks. In good times, this allows a project lead or supervisor to reassign work if an employee is out, such as for a vacation or maternity leave. In this situation, it helped our team go through our work to identify tasks that needed more backup options.

Going project by project, we wrote down each task, noted who completes the task and who can currently back up the task, whether in our department or another. We aimed for at least two people per task and highlighted where we had gaps. Then we noted where we needed additional training in order to strengthen our backup plans.

Finally, we wrote down how we could cut back for each project if necessary.

Here is an example, using our podcast projects.

Podcasts: Currently produced by professional development manager and senior editor

Episode content planning backup: Managing editor, chief learning officer, editor, and director of professional development
Episode recording backup: Managing editor and editor
o   Training needed: Senior editor to document her process.
Episode editing backup: Editor can learn and/or outsource.
o   Training needed: Professional development manager to train editor.
Entering episode in web content management system: Four team members can already do this. No additional backup or training needed.
Creating image for podcast: Design team or freelance designer
Posting to Instagram highlights: This is not a critical function and could be skipped.
Worst case scenario: We could skip one or more podcast episodes. 

Where training was needed, we assigned the staff member in charge of the task to create a step-by-step training document and saved them all in one folder on our department’s Microsoft SharePoint location.

Next, we tackled prioritization by ordering each project from most-to-least important.

At the top of our list was our monthly print magazine, CU Management, followed by our online magazine content hub at We consider these two projects our critical weekly and monthly functions. Our members need access to our high-quality content, especially now. These were the obvious top priorities.

Some decisions were easy, such as ranking as least important staff travel to CUES events. For the rest, we considered a number of objectives, including: How does skipping this affect members? How does it impact revenue? How will skipping this impact our 2021 situation?

For example, when looking at where to place videos vs. podcasts on the priority list, we considered how many sponsorships we currently had for each and how many unsold ad opportunities there were.

We also considered what message we would send to members if we cut back our communications. If our social media went quiet, could that cause members to worry?   

In addition to the overall project prioritization, we prioritized tasks within each project. Going back to the social media example, we decided we could focus on posting to our top two channels instead of all four.

Going through this process did take time, but it was valuable. It quieted a lot of my personal anxiety. As the department leader, I came away very pleased with the level of backups we already have in place. And now we are well prepared for any kind of sudden employee absence, whether COVID-related or not. It was such a useful exercise that I want to make reviewing it part of our annual department planning.  

Theresa Witham is the managing editor/publisher at CUES and oversees the association’s monthly CU Management magazine and its online content hub at Contact her at