By: John Bonoff
For organizations that have managed to navigate the initial COVID-19 crisis, it has been a process of experimentation, resourcefulness, and hope. The amount of uncertainty surrounding the virus and its impact looks to be a central theme of our future, especially considering the very real possibility of a second wave. Although all organizations will have to employ some element of “wait-and-see” in their go-forward strategy, there is a lot that can be done to limit the negative impact of future emergencies. This article will look at the ways in which crisis communications should be adapted for future crises, such as a second wave of the coronavirus.
A Crisis in Stages
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, McKinsey & Company published what they believed to be the five defining stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, listed below. The framework is designed to give organizations clarity around the development of the outbreak and the future it will create.
During the first stage of the outbreak, businesses take on large-scale, rapid transformation. Whether it’s moving into the medical supply business, or taking the company remote, success in the first stage is dependent on the resolve of employees and leaders to make hard, necessary changes in a short amount of time.
As the long-term impacts of the pandemic begin to take shape, a health crisis also becomes a financial crisis. The economic challenges for individuals and businesses rival anything we’ve seen in the past century. The resilience needed to begin and sustain the journey back to solid footing will define this stage, especially amidst the difficult decisions around how to balance social and financial wellbeing.
Getting back to full operational capacity is a long road, especially when each link in the supply chain needs to be reactivated effectively for any single business to thrive. This may only be possible with widespread testing or vaccination, which could take a year or more. Employers are forced to balance the health and safety of their employees with the financial strain involved in a delayed return.
As whole industries begin to shift, and technology takes an even bigger role in the workplace for nearly all businesses, certain vulnerabilities and opportunities will come to light. Leaders will have to re-evaluate nearly all aspects of operations, to figure out where costs might be flexible, where things can be stretched, and which ways the consumer, who also functions in a new capacity, can be reached.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, the interconnected nature of our healthcare system, local and national economies, and personal lives is more apparent than ever. Not only will business leaders need to more closely consider the greater economic landscape when bringing reform to their operations, but they will need to grow in a way that will be able to better withstand another emergency.
Crisis Communications for the Future of Work
With an undefined endpoint, and the looming possibility of a second wave, it is likely that the COVID-19 crisis will be a part of our lives for quite a while. In order to move through the stages of the pandemic and begin to reimagine and reform operations, organizations will need to use what was learned during the initial crisis to bolster against what may come next.
To stay ahead of future crises, such as another COVID-19 surge, consider these three crucial elements of a successful crisis communications plan.
1. The continued prioritization of people
If the coronavirus pandemic has revealed any lessons about crisis management, it’s that people must come first. Amidst all the questions about financial strain and customer commitments, tending to the needs of employees has to be the first priority in crisis management for the organization to move past the crisis as a united front. Information will be more critical than ever to employee wellbeing and safety as the COVID-19 pandemic becomes more nuanced and more pronounced in certain areas. Whereas governments are largely responsible for initiating comprehensive distancing protocols, employers play a large role in choosing the time and manner of a return to work, as well as the temporary suspension of a previous plan to do so in the event of a second wave. It is imperative that employees receive support and updates, through weekly company meetings or real-time email blasts, about information that affects them and their area. It’s important to be transparent around the current strategy, as well as what the company intends to do in the case of future scenarios. This may also include going back on previously-laid plans, and clearly laying out the reasons behind it.
2. A more agile process
Until we are able to better define the implications of COVID-19, organizations will need to incorporate more flexibility into the planning process. With such an unpredictable and potentially catastrophic crisis looming over operations, leaders have a responsibility to create plans that can be adapted quickly. Organizations will have to reconsider business priorities through the lens of a more volatile landscape. The company road map will have to become more fluid, and announcements will have to be issued more often. Most importantly, employees need to adopt this new mindset, so they can move quickly as a collective when the time comes. Establishing a mode of agile communications with remote workers is key in this area. For organizations to remain productive and efficient amid changing tides, employees and leaders alike will need to operate under a pretense of increased experimentation and new levels of flexibility.
3. A documented, yet adaptable plan
In times of uncertainty, it pays to focus on what you can control. With so much unknown ahead of us, putting a plan in place that can handle several outcomes is the best defense against a potential second wave of COVID-19. Create a playbook that accounts for the following factors, so you can be as proactive as possible when it counts.
Starting with employees, make a list of all audiences that will need to be informed about any significant changes made in light of the pandemic. It’s likely that these diverse groups will require different communication journeys, or campaigns, throughout the pandemic, so it’s advantageous to give yourself a bird’s-eye view.
Develop a dedicated crisis taskforce to establish who is responsible for company-wide communication and processes. If you already have a taskforce in place, make sure all members are able to respond quickly when decisions have to be made. Everyone on the team should follow updates in real time and check in regularly.
c. Communication strategy:
To bring it all together, create a master list of all your intended crisis communications recipient groups, the messages you are sending to each, and the date of send. To do this, you can leverage anything from a spreadsheet to a change communications solution. Compiling this information will allow you to track communications throughout the pandemic, and act quickly when complex messages need to be sent out en masse, or edited on the fly. If the organization needs to halt production or reduce head count, what will you say, and to whom? If an uptick in virus cases forces a tighter shutdown, what information will be relayed first? Avoid speculation in messaging, but lean toward transparency and clarity during moments of change. Outlining communications for these events ahead of time and tracking it all in a centralized location can give you a huge boost in keeping your organization informed and connected.
Although staying optimistic is a must, the threat of a second wave is one to be taken seriously. And, time spent preparing for another crisis will not be time wasted; even in the absence of a second wave, the fallout from the initial crisis could manifest in any number of ways, which can test the readiness of your organization. The best we can do is plan for the possible scenarios, prepare our teams, plot out communications, and be measured in our crisis management. As we continue to rethink the workplace, and excavate the future of productivity, keep in mind that we’ll need to first make it through this ongoing crisis. If a fifth phase of communications becomes necessary, make sure your organization leverages what they’ve learned to ensure a safe and productive future for your employees.