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Lest We Forget: Learning the Lessons from the COVID-19 Crisis

March 20, 2020
By Brian West

While it may be too soon to talk about recovery, we will return to Business As Usual (BAU) from COVID-19, whatever form that BAU may take. So it is the right time to be capturing the lessons learned from this unprecedented global event for the next time we are faced with a crisis.

Every company has a Business Continuity Plan (BCP), right?  Perhaps not. Research suggests that up to a third of companies globally still don’t have a BCP. For those that do have them, they would take reference and tell everyone – staff, customers, suppliers – that they have a specific response to the anticipated scenario around infectious diseases and how to keep them safe and the business going.

A strong BCP would specifically rule out a management team physically coming together to meet and agree the company’s response to COVID-19, instead opting for virtual meetings and decision-making. For those strong-minded teams that insist on meeting in person, the consequences can often lead to even slower and ineffective responses.

In one actual case of this happening, the President of a large organisation was admitted to the local infectious diseases ward with a high temperature the day after meeting his team. The management, while waiting on the results of the President’s tests, had to self-isolate too. In the end, the tests were negative, and a bad curry was named as the culprit. The lesson was learned, but almost the hard way.

While BCPs focus on keeping a business running or getting back up and running again after an incident, even the best BCP does not concern itself with the important art of reputation management.

Yet again, surveys show that between 30% and 50% of companies globally do not have even the most basic Crisis Communication Playbook. They are totally unprepared.

Of those that do have Playbooks, research tells us that only a third run drills to simulate potential crises and often these simulations are box-ticking exercises rather than a real test of management’s ability to respond and lead in a crisis. On-the-job learning can be a real career-defining challenge!

Now is the time to capture the lessons from COVID-19 and build that BCP, that Crisis Communication Playbook and commit to running simulations around other highly probable crises, such as a cyber breach. A modern Crisis Communication Playbook is also built around the power and opportunity offered by technology and social media.

It was recently suggested to a global manufacturing company that the CEO go on video to talk to the workforce, to offer support, compassion and, more importantly, confidence that the company would come through the situation, while prioritising the health and safety of their staff. This would add to the power and authenticity of the company’s commitment and message.

Two members of the management sniffed that their factory floor workers don’t have access to computers, so we needed to stay with emails, notices and posters for the noticeboard. They added that their sales representatives are always on-the-road and are infrequently in the office.

The modern-day obvious response is that everyone has a mobile phone, with WhatsApp/WeChat/Telegram/Yammer and many other platforms offering the opportunity to reach all employees in real-time in various ways, including by video.

In other types of crises (earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters) these technologies can allow companies to account for staff. As a side note, even in poor areas of regions in Africa, where people are lacking basic services and are malnourished, they still have mobile phones. People march to their own beat.

Everyone is on social media and accustomed to consuming visual information, so the challenge for companies is to use infographics around the issue and videos of the company leaders talking about it. This is a far more powerful way of management teams presenting themselves as being authentic in their care for staff and their families.

The COVID-19 issue demanded that companies focus on internal communications, internal communications, internal communications – and only then other stakeholders. In times of fear and uncertainty, communicate regularly but not always from the CEO – cascading communications through team supervisors remains very powerful.

Another key learning is to centralise decision-making on policies and outgoing communication and enforce it – you can’t have managers telling their staff in their office/geography that they can do something different to company-wide policy (such as travel for business when the rest of the company is not).

Employees will have lots of questions and one central body needs to be reviewing and answering them – for all company employees to see and understand.  Listening also remains a critical skill to understanding the motivation, worries and agendas of your key stakeholders.

The final lesson is that while people crave BAU and want to return to work, we cannot become complacent. We are seeing in parts of Asia already, even though the crisis is not over, that there is a second wave underway (imported cases), and who can rule out a third wave?

If people are to return to their communities soon – their work community and their social community – both business and society need to be alert, responsive and precise now. Nobody wants the reputation of having done too little when it truly mattered.