Earlier this month, Rod Cartwright, a senior reputation and crisis communication advisor (and the newest member of The Difference Collective), and Matt Hodges-Long, business continuity risk specialist at Continuity Partner, ran a webinar for our members looking at the crisis communication and business preparedness practices that organisations might consider in the face of COVID-19.
If you’re anything like us, the last two weeks have felt like two years. But, with the reality of this pandemic impacting our lives and work, we’re reflecting on the insights from the webinar and how they can help us all to navigate our communications in these unprecedented times.
Crisis: what’s in a word?
Revisiting the definition of the word ‘crisis’ has enormous practical implications for our mindset. A crisis isn’t the notion of a disaster, catastrophe or cataclysm as our public discourse or media might lead us to believe. Instead, it is derived from the Greek ‘krisis’, meaning a turning point in a disease when a person either gets better or deteriorates further.
As such, a crisis in operational or communications terms is a critical moment or inflexion rather than a disastrous endpoint. We’ve seen a number of these turning points so far and few would doubt that we’ll see more before the coronavirus pandemic ends.
Assessing the risks
There’s no question that an organisation’s preparedness for a moment of crisis can significantly impact the outcome. In her book Communication in a Crisis, Kate Hartley cites that, on average, a company loses 5% of its shareholder value over the year following a major crisis. But organisations that prepare thoroughly and rehearse scenarios ultimately outperform and gain an average of 35% in value. Those that don’t typically lose close to 30% of their value and eject their CEO.
While it may be too late to talk about preparedness for this pandemic as a whole, playing out different scenarios at each new turning point is still a necessity.
In making these decisions, we should assess risks both at the macro (economic, corporate, societal) and micro (people, property, systems, supply chain, financial) level. And we should systematically assess them so that we understand not just the component parts but their impact in combination.
Crisis as a human endeavour
Working out how to humanise our approach to crisis preparedness and communication – how we think, act, speak and look – is critical. It’s all well and good to have the systems in place to deal with a crisis but it’s the training and stress testing of both the processes and the people behind them in real-time, which matters most.
“Crises are human issues with human consequences which require human decision making and human response.”
Our inboxes have been full of carefully crafted COVID-19 communications and the human words and tone are what connects us to the message and the messenger, and of course the brand behind them.
Facilitating psychological safety
Fear and uncertainty can be as damaging as the risk of the virus itself, whether that be fear among employees, customers, suppliers, communities or investors.
Facilitating and nurturing psychological safety is a fundamental challenge. You’ll likely be familiar with the concept of catastrophisation, the tendency to overestimate the scale of a threat and underestimate the resources available to deal with it. This means that every organisation must consider how to minimise at a corporate level the very human tendency to catastrophise in a way which helps its audiences to avoid falling into the same trap at an individual level.
Human preparedness and psychological safety are mission-critical and yet most business continuity plans don’t account for them.
Dovetailing operations and communications
Few PR crises are the result of poor communication alone and the dovetail between communications and operational preparedness or responsiveness is critical. But too often, these happen in isolation.
Operational leaders tend to be problem solvers by nature so may sit on problems for too long rather than giving early warning to the communications team. Every minute that goes by, you lose time for the comms team to get on the front foot and to mobilise their own resources. Similarly, if there’s a comms issue which may impact operations, this needs to be fed through.
Rather than see operations and communications as distinct functions, we must see them as one and the same.
In a world of social distancing, remote working is becoming a new normal for many but it brings unique challenges in the way we build organisational culture and communicate with one another. As a virtual Collective, we may already have chosen and embraced this way of working and life but how we choose to communicate, individually and collectively, has never been more important.
About the Author
Jo Williams is a freelance marketing consultant with more than 20 years’ healthcare marketing experience. She takes an insight-driven approach and has a keen eye for what’s new and making the biggest difference to brands in their marketing activity.