Rod Cartwright 09 Apr 2020 // 8:27AM GMT
It may seem like a lifetime ago, but it’s easy to forget that 2019 was pretty strange. A friend had mused that after a year of Brexit chaos, climate emergency, strident populism and soap opera US politics, at least 2020 couldn’t get any more bizarre. Well, be careful what you speculate about.
In just three short months, life as we know it globally has simply evaporated, taking countless lives, economies and livelihoods with it. Normality – potentially radically different from before, once we emerge from this movie-like state – feels to many like a distant dream.
In the UK, we were finally ‘locked down’ last month, after the Prime Minister discovered that hopelessly muddled and contradictory messaging wasn’t the best way of driving desired behaviour change. Essentially, we’ve entered a cryogenic pit-stop, with an extension of the current restrictions a pretty safe bet.
Certainly, the impact of the Coronavirus has already decimated a raft of sectors – transport, travel, leisure, tourism and entertainment at the front of the queue. But investors in Zoom, PayPal, Amazon and Electronic Arts are unlikely to be too distraught financially.
Binary differences in economic impact for sure. And yet, over the course of seven Covid-19 webinars I’ve led over recent weeks – alongside business continuity expert Matt Hodges-Long – I’ve seen some important common themes emerge. Whether in conversation with members of the PRCA, EACD, the Supper Club or the Institute of Leadership & Management, we’ve been focusing on a core set of seven crisis communication principles and crisis preparedness best practices:
View crisis as an inflection point. Crisis – properly defined – is in fact always a turning point, not a cataclysmic end point. How you emerge from it depends on how you go in and your approach in the teeth of the storm. In an eloquent piece on LinkedIn last week, good friend and former colleague Simeon Mellalieu, an Asia-Pacific partner at Ketchum, described COVID-10 as “evolving disruption” rather than crisis – a shrewd take on the inevitably long-term and ever-changing nature of what we are experiencing. The most enlightened organisations will already be looking closely at the behavioural psychology behind the crisis, in the short, medium and long-term.
Remember the human imperative. At their core, crises are human events, with human consequences requiring human decision-making and human responses. Being human, humane and humble in your words and deeds – even where impossibly tough choices must be made – is more critical than ever. Organisations will be remembered as much for their demonstrations of humanity as for their absence of decency. Britannia Hotels, which fired all its staff at the end of March, may just find this out the hard way.
Organisational resilience = human preparedness. A company is simply an amalgam of human beings – a 'shared fiction'. As with any army, organisational resilience depends fundamentally on the effective human engagement, training, unity and morale of every constituent part. While adverse media coverage and baying investors may feel like the most immediate foe, the engagement of your employee ambassadors, treatment of your front-line teams and approach to furloughed staff will be business-critical in the long-term.
Nurture psychological security. If corporate resilience starts with human beings, a key leadership imperative amid COVID-19 will be to provide psychological security. Starbucks’ announcement that it would offer up to 20 free sessions of therapy to employees is just one example of such a response. But, avoiding leadership ‘catastrophisation’ corporately will be essential in helping employees manage rampant uncertainty individually.
Maintain and celebrate culture and values. The organisations which have already stood out since Covid-19 hit with full force are those who have communicated and acted with honesty, transparency, clarity, simplicity and consistency. The humble and humane letter from the founders of the Hawksmoor restaurant chain, announcing its temporary closure, will go down in the brand history of Covid-19 and pay long-term dividends for its authors and organisation.
Align operations with your organisational intent. Some of the most impressive brand pivots have, in fact, been deeply operational and tapped into the organisation’s raison d’etre. LVMH's lightning-fast move to re-purpose its entire cosmetics and perfume production line produce hand sanitiser and supermarket Morrison’s realignment of its entire operation to support a Covid-19 commitment to “Feed the Nation” are just two striking examples.
Reputation and operations are the same thing. In ‘peacetime’, few PR crises are due to poor communication alone. Most tend to involve some combination of operational, leadership, governance, customer and cultural issues. The Covid-19 era is, essentially, no different, making the alignment of operational and communication preparedness with business continuity planning essential. Regularly reassessing risks and re-running scenarios will be key.
In time, this too will pass. But while Covid-19 defines the world’s daily existence, thoughtful, human communication – working in lockstep with operational agility – will be central to corporate survival for many and the right collective response for us all.