The so-called collateral damage of COVID-19 will be measured in the negative economic growth for months to come as well as from destroyed corporate and government reputations its distractive path will leave behind.
Already, the first prominent victims are there for all to see; the reputation of countries usually associated with efficiency and strong leaderships has been brought into question; entrepreneurs and brands previously enjoying larger-than-life fame have been vilified; and organisations that have been tackling major agendas on behalf of the human race have failed to live up to expectations.
Let’s see what we know so far; the US, the world’s biggest economy and undisputed superpower, is currently at the mercy of COVID-19, which has put to test the country’s healthcare system – for many considered as the model the rest of the world should follow. What the US dismally failed to do during this crisis is communicate accurately and manage expectations before the virus got out of control in one of the country’s biggest cities.
Not so compassionate after all
On the corporate front, we have Virgin, an erstwhile prestige brand, and its owner, Richard Branson, someone carrying the enviable reputation of an anti-establishment, self-made billionaire who deeply cared for others. What Virgin did when COVID-19 made its impact felt in the airline industry was to show no consideration for its two most critical audiences; its employees and the British tax-payer, the base from where it draws the majority of its customers.
Virgin told its employees that there was nothing they could expect from the deep pockets of its owner to alleviate their situation until things got back to normal, sending British tax payers the message that unless they chipped in to bail out the airline, insolvency, and therefore, unemployment for thousands, would follow.
We also have the World Health Organisation (WHO), a highly respectable group of senior academics, doctors and scientists backed up by a small army of administrators and advisors, who were allegedly late in communicating the actual facts associated with the pandemic’s impact on China. This accusation has been vehemently denied, but still hovers as an ominous cloud above the head of the organisation, Tedros Adhanom.
In all three cases, the common word is communication and the adjective describing it varies from “failed” to “late” and “slow” to “unempathetic”.
As governments, businesses and NGOs try to mitigate the diverse reputational risks they’re facing, this pandemic may be a good reminder that we can’t take anything for granted. And that times of duress is perhaps the most pertinent to start getting ready for the next crisis.
Get ahead of the game
“Fix it before it breaks” should be the new-age motto as opposed to the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. In a post-coronavirus world, it’s doubtful that anyone will still be looking at the US as an admirable example of how countries should provide healthcare care services to citizens. In the same vein, Mr. Branson may never again enjoy the popularity his charismatic self once commanded. And unless the WHO takes decisive measures to restructure and reorganise, few will continue to take its role seriously or contribute to its coffers to help it stay relevant.
It is now the best time for governments, companies and organisations to start thinking about the day after and how best they can be prepared for the next crisis. There are a few steps to be put in place and air-tight crisis communications protocols designed to mitigate risks and protect reputations.
* Audit existing internal and external communication protocols and test them to see how they would respond during a major crisis scenario that could potentially afflict their industry or domain.
* Develop a bespoke crisis preparedness and response manual that takes into account the organisation’s specific nature and incorporates tailored strategies to efficiently shield itself from crisis threats and protect hard-earned reputational capital.
* Train senior leadership to be able in times of crisis to communicate with various stakeholders in ways that are conducive to maintaining and building trust, efficiency, transparency and empathy.
Crisis management is about being ready for the worst at a strategic level. It is being ready to make the right decisions to protect the organisation in the toughest of circumstances, under intense pressure and scrutiny. And that means preparing people and culture as well as process.
- George Kotsolios is Managing Partner at Leidar MENA and author of ‘Back to the Future of Marketing — PRovolve or Perish’. Follow him on Twitter @georgekotsolios.