ITL #402 Harsh lessons: what covid-19 has taught us about crisis communication

9 months ago

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Strategies that have guided organisations through the pandemic may not be as effective when responding to a different type of crisis which arrives with no warning and escalates rapidly. By Jonathan Hemus.



As the current pandemic has shown, a crisis can have a sudden and devastating impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. According to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects Report published in June 2020, forecasters estimate a 5.2 percent contraction in global GDP in 2020 as a result of covid-19. Alongside this, falling stock prices, disrupted supply chains and national lockdowns have left many organisations in significantly weakened positions where they are even more vulnerable to risk. 

But as the famous Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff said, “every downside has its upsides”. Unsettling, frustrating and terrifying as the current pandemic is, it has also created opportunities, not least for communication professionals.

The critical role of communication

A crisis is the acid test of leadership. Successful resolution relies on addressing the underlying problem and effectively communicating your response to it. Sadly, in the case of covid-19, no one has yet been able to solve the underlying problem. As a result, communication has become even more critical as organisations strive to maintain the trust and confidence of their stakeholders – a fact not lost on communication professionals.  

Now, more than ever, communicators across the globe are finding themselves ‘up front and centre’ as leadership teams recognise their value and worth when it comes to protecting business value and reputation. Faced with depleted teams and operating from home in conditions that are often sub-optimal, their skills and abilities have been tested to the limits as they work to make their corporate voice heard.

Their efforts are much needed if research conducted by global PR firm Edelman in March 2020 is anything to go by. It showed that 65% of people felt that hearing from brands about what they were doing to respond to the pandemic was comforting and reassuring. The research also revealed that in a world where government messaging can be confused and unclear, people regard their employer as the most credible source of information on the coronavirus: 63% said that they would believe information from that channel after one or two exposures, versus 58% for a government website and 51% for traditional media.

Against this backdrop it is easy to see why communication professionals have been and remain at the heart of the response to covid-19. People want clear guidance on what to do and how to keep safe. Without it, the consequences can be catastrophic.

The importance of getting messaging right

Since the start of the pandemic, the British population has been bombarded by unclear, inconsistent communication from government. From how many people you can meet up with, to the rules associated with working from home, messaging has been ambiguous and confusing. Consequently, people have struggled to know what is right and they have interpreted the rules as they see fit – a sure fire recipe for disaster.

So, what can we learn from the UK government’s mishandling of covid-19 communication?

Firstly, messaging needs to be clear, simple, consistent and in line with your organisation’s values. It must be communicated in a timely fashion and the tone of voice must resonate with those on the receiving end, a feat which is best achieved by putting yourself in the shoes of your stakeholders.  

Communication also needs to be transparent. UK sports retailer Sports Direct failed to meet this criterion when it tried to spin its commercially driven decision to keep stores open during the national lockdown as being legitimate on the grounds that selling sports and fitness equipment made the company a vital asset. Criticism from its staff, customers and the media was swift and the stores had to shut.

Messaging must also be empathetic. In a crisis, people remember what you say and do which is why it was so surprising to see Richard Branson, the billionaire boss of Virgin Atlantic, demonstrating an uncharacteristic lack of empathy following his decision to apply for a government loan to bail out his failing airline. It was jarring to see one of the world’s richest and most admired men asking for taxpayers’ money when many people were fearful for their jobs.

As the public response to covid-19 has shown, in times of crisis, people turn to those they trust for information. Therefore, the pandemic presents a real opportunity for communication professionals to strengthen and build stakeholder relationships. Get it right and your reputation is protected. Get it wrong and you may not survive.

Setting clear objectives

As trusted advisors to senior leadership, communicators have an important role to play when it comes to evaluating the reputational impact of decisions and actions. They need to be prepared to act as devil’s advocate and be willing to challenge their superiors if they feel there is a disconnect between the proposed direction of travel and their organisation’s values.

One way to avoid misalignment is to set your strategic intent for managing the crisis at the outset. Your strategic intent should be expressed as a clear  articulation of how you want your organisation to be remembered when the crisis is over. Once agreed, it should be used to guide decision making and action planning, as exemplified by this comment from Carole Scott, Head of Corporate Communications at Henkel: “Right from the very start, our response [to the pandemic] was focused on the safety of our employees, customers and other stakeholders. This guided all our decision-making and helped us to prioritise the most important actions to take.”

Prioritising stakeholders

Your strategic intent also provides invaluable guidance for evaluating which stakeholders require priority attention in a crisis. As the pandemic has shown, when you lack time and resource it is not possible to communicate equally with every stakeholder. Therefore, you must consider which stakeholders are most important in terms of helping you achieve your strategic intent and prioritise them accordingly.

Interestingly, covid-19 has revealed the danger of preconceived ideas regarding priority stakeholders. For example, you would normally expect the media to be a key audience in any crisis. However, in this instance, they were a low priority for most organisations with attention being focussed instead on employees and customers. As a result, organisations have had to adapt their thinking and the ways in which they communicate.

Embracing flexibility

The requirement to be flexible is something we have seen extensively during the pandemic. Faced with limited, and often rapidly changing information, communication teams have had to be more agile. They have also had to work at pace. Therefore, it is no surprise that the organisations with the ability to upweight communications resource and to implement pre-existing crisis plans that are flexible, rather than one dimensional or based on fixed assumptions, have been more successful in their response.

Another learning is the enormous value of crisis communication planning, training and exercising in advance of an issue occurring.

For example, while some businesses remained in denial for weeks or even months, guided by a pre-prepared pandemic plan one of our clients, a mining company, seized the opportunity to set the agenda and get ahead of the impending crisis.

They began scenario planning the potential impacts of covid-19 on their business as soon as news of the disease emerged from China. Consequently, when lockdown hit, they had already implemented a global travel ban for staff, explored contingencies for home working and taken steps to shut down non-essential operations, all actions which enabled them to exert influence over the crisis and protect their stakeholders’ lives and livelihoods.

Similarly, Dave Lewis, the recently departed CEO of UK supermarket Tesco, has publicly stated that a crisis plan resulting from a ‘doomsday’ exercise run four years ago has been instrumental in helping his business overcome the challenges posed by coronavirus.

Planning ahead  

As we move into the next phase of this crisis, no one knows exactly what to expect. Take time now to carry out a structured review of your covid-19 response to date. By identifying gaps and flaws within it you create a platform you can build on, enabling you to address key issues and emerge better placed to respond when the next crisis hits. A review also ensures you capture and repeat the actions which were particularly effective.

It is also vital to reassess your reputational risk landscape against the new reality and ensure you are prepared not just for the next phase of the pandemic, but also ‘conventional’ crises such as cyberattacks, product safety issues, environmental incidents and catastrophic disasters.

These risks are just as prevalent as before the pandemic but with organisations in a weakened state and communication teams fatigued, it is essential to remain vigilant and prepared for secondary crises. They will take a different form to coronavirus which was a slow burn issue affecting every organisation at the same time and as a consequence reduced external focus on any one business.

So, beware an expectation that strategies which guided you through the pandemic will be equally successful in responding to a crisis which arrives with no warning, escalates rapidly and leaves your organisation exposed to the media spotlight.

The battle to protect reputation and retain stakeholder trust

Coronavirus is the biggest crisis management wake-up call the world has ever seen and we can learn multiple lessons from it. As we continue to navigate our way through these uncharted waters, retaining the trust and confidence of stakeholders will remain the single most important challenge and undoubtedly, communication professionals have a vital role to play in achieving this business-critical endeavour.


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The Author

jonathan Hemus

jonathan Hemus is managing director of Insignia, a specialist crisis management consultancy which works with leaders of businesses around the world to protect value and reputation when crisis strikes.

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