Thursday, May 7, 2020

By Rick Kelly

Even the most optimistic prognosis for developing a COVID-19 vaccine suggests the pandemic will be with us for months to come. Consequently, many organizations will be faced with crises resulting from the infection spreading among employees, customers or others who enter their workplaces.

Just as there is no roadmap for managing this unprecedented pandemic, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for managing individual crises. Every organization is unique. In addressing your crisis, you may encounter legal, financial, human resource, stakeholder communication and possibly news media challenges, as well as operational issues as you navigate a recovery plan and attempt to return to “normal.”

From a crisis management lens, we offer the following observations and recommendations to help you prepare, manage and recover from your crisis, mitigate the damage to your organization’s reputation and return to your operations as soon as you can.

Have a plan

In conducting crisis management training, we say that it’s not a matter of if you’ll have a crisis, but when. We also concede that crisis management isn’t rocket science. But if you identify the types of crises your organization is likely to face, develop plans for responding to them and train to the plan using the most likely crisis scenarios, you can shorten the recovery process and get back to business more quickly.

In addition to crisis management protocols, your plan should include scenario-specific holding statements to use with various stakeholders and, if needed, the news media. Holding statements are most often used in the early stages of a crisis, before causes have been identified and confirmed. They typically acknowledge a problem, describe the initial steps the organization is taking to address it, make note of any cooperation with appropriate authorities, express sympathy for any victims and their families, and detail any steps or protocols you have in place to avoid or mitigate such problems.

Select and train a crisis response team

As part of your preparation, you should assemble a crisis response team. What types of expertise would you need, and who would fill those roles? Who are your stakeholders, who would speak to them, and how would you reach them? If multiple people are required to manage operational and communication issues, your plan will need to include protocols for coordinating these activities.

Once you develop your plan and assemble your crisis response team, you can train its members by walking through the steps required to handle the most likely crises your organization could face. In 2020 and beyond, infectious disease pandemics should be on that list.

Keep your plan and training up to date

Review your plan at least once a year, repeat the training periodically and make sure that new employees who are to fill crisis response roles are trained as they come on board.

Comply with safety/health guidelines

Particularly in the case of COVID-19, it’s critical that you comply with spacial distancing, disinfecting and other health guidelines. Also, keep in mind that any crisis involving the health and welfare of employees will focus the attention of stakeholders (and possibly the news media) on steps you have taken or not taken to protect employees in the workplace.

Focus on stakeholders

Depending on your organization, your stakeholders could include customers, suppliers, neighbors, regulators, investors, partner organizations and other groups in addition to your employees and their families. You’ve already identified them in developing your crisis management plan (see “Have a plan” above).

As you handle a crisis, make sure you reach out to them to let them know what steps you’re taking to address the crisis, and do that through target-specific channels to the extent possible. Keep in mind that distinct stakeholder groups may have different informational needs and different ways of receiving their information.

Your organization should already have organization-related monitoring measures in place (Google alerts are a popular tool, and there are many others). During a crisis, you may want to augment such measures with crisis-specific keywords that may help you understand a broad view of the crisis issues.

The news media

Depending on the severity of your crisis – real or perceived – the news media may become interested. When they do, you’re probably going to need to engage, to protect your organization and the interests of your stakeholders. Even if you are able to communicate directly with all stakeholder groups, ignoring the news media will create a vacuum, and you may not like what winds up filling it. This is your opportunity to narrate your story and show that your organization is addressing the crisis appropriately.

There are many factors that drive the media’s interest, such as your organization’s prominence, the number of people infected, your organization’s reputation (good or bad) and what you make or sell or what services you provide.

Dealing with reporters will add to the difficulty of managing a crisis, but your crisis management plan and training should include preparation and protocols for media relations. Many organizations, especially smaller ones, often bring in a strategic communication consultant to assist.

Whether your communication needs are confined to stakeholders or include news media outlets, your ability to provide accurate, relevant and timely information can ease your recovery and, in some cases, secure your organization’s very survival.

The aftermath

In crisis management training, we advise clients to prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and expect to end up somewhere in the middle. We often note that it’s not a crisis that defines an organization’s reputation, it’s how the organization prepared for it and handled it.

If you take prudent steps to prevent the virus from entering and spreading in your workplace, were prepared to respond in case it did, kept your stakeholders apprised with accurate, relevant and timely information and demonstrated care and compassion for those who were infected, you and your organization may not only survive, but could come away with a stronger reputation than when the crisis began.