It is clear we are in the midst of a global crisis. Individuals, organizations and governments have not had the capacity to control how the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis has impacted them. However, as organizations, we still have the opportunity to control how we respond to it.
During a global crisis, two truths hold firm: Panic is not a strategy; and what you resist persists.
Companies often react in the spur of the moment, rather than responding thoughtfully, inevitably making the repercussions worse. However, those who handle it well — by rapidly strategizing for all possible scenarios and engaging the right crisis counsel team to lead their response — not only get through the crisis the quickest, but can even turn their response into a long-term advantage. Dealing with a crisis will always be painful. However, with the right partner to help navigate the waters, it does not have to hurt too much, neither from a financial nor a reputational perspective. While events may feel out of control, crises often evolve according to predictable patterns.
While global markets realized unprecedented growth in 2019, many of us questioned the fundamentals behind such accelerated returns and predicted uncertainty on the horizon. Additionally, with interest rates at historic lows globally, many financial oracles warned of a looming recession. Already last fall, during the Future Investment Initiative here in Riyadh, world-renowned investor Ray Dalio predicted that the combination of increased economic inequality and ineffective economic policies could lead to a difficult and scary situation for leaders. Triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, his prediction now looks more like a crystal ball; we are currently navigating that difficult and scary future. While we can’t change the underlying circumstances, we can minimize the impact of this worldwide tornado. There are four critical steps leaders should follow to reduce and mitigate the impact of any crisis.
First is reassure, reassure, reassure. This crisis is not just about you. Your decisions in times of community crisis can have an over-sized effect on a vast network of people, most of whom you may not even know. From your lowest employee to their kids and their grandparents, your choices affect them all. It is essential to strike a proper balance when it comes to the tone of your messaging. Confidence can be comforting, but the absence of vital information and a lack of certainty can cause much more significant disruptions in many ways. Step back, take a breath, and avoid operating from a reactive place of panic where you feel you have to fix everything immediately.
The prevention of decision-making in moments of fear is one of the main reasons to partner with external crisis managers. It gives you a buffer and an ally. Because, in times of pain, we as humans are awful at looking at a situation objectively; given the way our brains are wired, every decision we make is already weighted and inherently biased. Having a team of experienced crisis managers on hand 24/7 to reassure customers and employees who need help understanding the underlying facts, their repercussions, and the way forward can be the difference between a manageable disruption to operations and a full-blown catastrophe.
A robust crisis management plan is a necessity. We are currently seeing organizations across the world react to coronavirus in a myriad of rational and irrational ways.
Daniel Dart and Johan Bjurman Bergman
The second step is to focus on solidarity. Since we are all human, the chances are that what reassures you is the same thing that would reassure your customers and employees. To understand what that message should be, practice empathy by asking yourself what you would want to hear if you were in their shoes. A skilled crisis manager can help translate those same needs, wants and concerns into language that will resonate with each distinct audience — external or internal — while factoring in critical legal, policy and business perspectives.
Third is to be patient and focus on the long term. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, while speaking in Riyadh, cited a bias toward “short-termism” — a preoccupation with what is immediate at the expense of what is in our long-term interests. While his talk was on infrastructure management, the same principle applies to crisis management. Short-termism inevitably forces organizations to be reactive instead of proactive, to plug holes instead of preventing them, and to place sticking plasters over wounds instead of strategically mitigating the damage. These ex post actions may fix the short-term problem, but they don’t avert a crisis. The leadership team is worried, but so too are the employees and the customers. Adopting a proactive, long-term approach and developing responses and solutions allows organizations to prioritize the well-being of all their stakeholders and build the kind of trust that outlasts any crisis.
Finally, prepare for the rebound. Perhaps most importantly, a crisis is a moment in time. Eventually, business and life will resume. Those who are able to keep momentum and level heads throughout are uniquely poised to benefit down the road. Among other things, this means keeping your communications strong, and the machine moving, to grab market share when competitors slow down. It means keeping the talent pipeline engaged, using targeted messages to ensure preparedness for the upswing, and it means adjusting the operations clockwork to minimize order wait times or client responses.
Every organization is vulnerable to crises, but the way they respond plays a massive role in how well they recover. Every organization faces a variety of potential crises, with significant variance in type, severity and required response. “Crises” — which can be defined as any disruption to “business as usual” — can be triggered by something as global and severe as the current COVID-19 outbreak and other natural disasters, or more isolated, but no less disruptive, events like negative press from a poorly timed Twitter post or public comment, both of which can sometimes profoundly impact your reputation. Some crises are predictable and allow for thorough pre-planning. Others, like the one we’re all facing at present, are unpredictable but share common characteristics that enable organizations to develop a standard toolbox and planning templates to cover most instances.
In today’s rapidly changing world, a robust crisis management plan is no longer just a nice thing to have, it’s a necessity. But crises require expertise, rational thinking and objectivity, not best guesses, panic decisions and subjectivity. Right now, we are seeing organizations across the world react to their new reality in a myriad of rational and irrational ways. Unfortunately for us all, it is still too early to know when COVID-19 will subside. However, what we do know is that, when it comes to organizations in crisis, those who choose to take control of their communication efforts are always the ones who come out on top.