Posted: 18 May. 2020 14 min. read

Reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic

What can crisis practitioners learn so far?

It might be the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end, but now seems an opportune moment to reflect on what we in the discipline of crisis management have learnt so far from the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are many observations to make but for now I have settled on three. These are all observations I have made over the years in a ‘Lessons from…’ series of articles relating to specific high profile crises. Do they hold true for the COVID-19 pandemic?

1. Crisis narratives are about ‘victims, villains and heroes’

This has definitely been the case for the COVID-19 pandemic. It is easy to spot the victims (those that have taken ill or sadly lost their lives) and the heroes (front line health professionals), and the media coverage focuses largely on these groups, plus additional ‘everyday heroes’ such as key workers across many sectors, fundraisers and those helping their local communities.

COVID-19 is an ‘externally driven crisis’ (ie not the fault of the organisations responding to it). Other externally driven crises include for example, terror attacks, cyber-attacks and weather events. But it is too simplistic to say the virus is the villain, and we are all its potential victims. Even if there is no expectation of an organisation to have prevented the situation, there is an expectation to respond well and to manage impacts on its stakeholders. Indeed, there will be an expectation that it could have identified the possibility of it happening (a pandemic should be near the top of any risk register, after all) and put measures in place to mitigate impacts on stakeholders.

Many organisations are, by acting quickly, responsibly and in line with their principles, potentially showing themselves to be ‘heroes’, at least to their immediate audiences. Some are actively promoting the work they have done for the common good, the contribution they are making (eg repurposing their manufacturing to hand sanitiser and ventilators) and their financial social investment.

There have been few ‘villains’ to date, and most companies that experienced negative stakeholder and public response to early decisions (such as on their response to the furlough scheme, for example) swiftly reconsidered those decisions. That may change as we move from respond (where we are ‘all in this together’) to recovery and some sort of modified new normal where tough decisions and changes may need to be made, and new ‘victims’ are created through job losses and economic impact.

The next phase of the crisis may see more narrative about organisational failure: what comes next will be complex and potentially more difficult to navigate. Ensuring decisions are viewed through a reputational lens and are anchored to core principals or values will be critical, and there may well be a need to balance competing stakeholder interests.

Reputational scenario planning will become more important. Organisations can think through potential future scenarios that involve a mix of external events (over which they have no control) and internal developments to imagine ‘worst case’ situations where they could be viewed negatively by stakeholders or the wider public. Understanding the triggers or decisions that create such scenarios, and making sure there are actionable plans to mitigate them, is a helpful exercise to check the developing strategy. Putting this reputational lens over forward planning is second nature to some organisations with a mature crisis capability: some have scenario planning and perhaps even a scenario planning team written into their crisis plans so that this activity is shielded from the day-to-day response. And even those without such a built-in capability can perform such a reputation check quite easily.

2. Invoking a crisis capability should bring order to chaos

The work that organisations do in the name of crisis preparedness has essentially one goal: to make life easier when a crisis strikes. A good crisis capability, invoked in a timely manner, will help get decisions made quickly and effectively, allow the organisation to see things through multiple lenses, align different parts of an organisation around common objectives and facilitate communication in a timely way around sensitive issues. It should help bring order to what could otherwise be chaos.

Crises are complex and stressful enough without having to invent ways of working on the spot. So what has been interesting to observe amongst our client base and contacts is that not all organisations have invoked their full crisis management capabilities to respond to COVID-19. I can understand why: this is not a typical corporate crisis with the media camped outside and with relentless spotlight and pressure from stakeholders. Declaring a crisis might escalate expectations or create an atmosphere that deviates from the sense that this is ‘everybody’s crisis, not ours’.

In not declaring a crisis, some organisations may have been eschewing a helpful way of working designed to manage difficult situations. This matters less if robust incident/issue management capability is in place, but this is not always the case. Issues management usually happens within a business as usual context, and allows for more space, time and flexibility, so understandably is less developed than crisis management as a discipline.

Going forward, organisations should start to think about creating/refining a capability for managing ‘high impact events’ or ‘special situations’. This may look very similar to crisis management, but allows the capability to be used without the accompanying emotional statement of declaring a crisis.

A capability for managing high impact events will also have the benefit of being useful for a range of other situations. Such an event could be a change or event the organisation itself is driving, such as a major transformation programme, project delivery, restructuring or product launch where significant derailment or failure could have major strategic implications and stakeholder impacts. It could also be a change or event driven by external factors or stakeholders, for which organisations must prepare. An example of this would be the preparatory and planning work organisations have undertaken to prepare for the UK’s exit of the EU.

This does not mean that crises won’t happen, and the risk of downgrading the emotionally impactful term ‘crisis’ to incident, event or situation is that senior management may become slow to recognise the potential seriousness of a situation. However, responding with structure to extraordinary circumstances is the primary goal. COVID-19 is one of the most extraordinary circumstances we have faced in our lifetimes and, if it has unearthed an aversion in some organisations to declaring a crisis, perhaps we need to review the mix of terminology we use.

3. Crises bring change; so get ahead of the change curve to ‘win the peace’

It may seem hard to believe, but there was a time not so long ago when we didn’t all talk about the ‘new normal’. But, although this is a relatively new term in public discourse, every major crisis does indeed bring change – whether to the organisation that had the crisis, a wider sector or wider corporate life or society – and most herald some sort of ‘new normal’.

In the language Deloitte has been using through the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations will move from ‘respond’ to ‘recover’ and then ‘thrive’ as time passes. The challenge for all organisations is to devote time to the longer term (‘thrive’) whilst there is so much to think about in responding to the immediate needs of the crisis. A good crisis model will allow a strategic team to think about long-term impacts and change from the very early stages of the response.

Whilst I do not subscribe to the view that ‘everything will change after this’, some things will: more digitisation, more home healthcare, more agile working etc. As is often the case, these trends were underway already; the crisis has provided the burning platform to accelerate the change and the proof of concept that it can work. Many organisations are adapting to COVID-19 by pushing through change that has been on the cards for some time.

What is important is to allow the time for this strategic thinking. As with the scenario planning point made above, organisations mature in crisis management can design their governance and structures to carve out ensure such time. It is not ‘luxury’ time; it is essential time.

In a crisis response, focusing on today only is tempting and feels like the right thing to do, but stakeholders will not thank you if your short-term focus leaves you unprepared for the fundamental change that is coming.

Final thoughts

There is still a long way to go in this situation and the above observations will play out in one way or another. There will be other lessons to identify and, hopefully, learn along the way. 

What will be most interesting to observe is whether the COVID-19 pandemic sees us double down on what we already know about crisis management or sees us make some fundamental changes to our discipline. What is for sure is that crisis and resilience will become more high profile, and perhaps finally be regarded as a truly strategic capability, as we move through and beyond this most extraordinary period.

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Andrew Griffin

Andrew Griffin

Risk Advisory Partner

Andrew Griffin is a specialist in strategic crisis management and corporate reputation management. For nearly 20 years, he has advised some of the world’s largest and most respected companies, helping them factor reputation into their decision making, resolve controversial issues and respond to crises. A specialist in strategic crisis management, he has helped global organisations become ‘crisis ready’ and provided senior counsel through many live issues and crises. He has advised organisations on issues ranging from serious crime allegations, industrial accidents, data loss and sudden regulatory intervention, to new product developments and market entry. Andrew was chief executive of specialist crisis management consultancy, Regester Larkin, prior to its acquisition by Deloitte in 2016. He is a regular media commentator and conference speaker and his book, ‘Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management’ was published in 2014. He has a degree in Politics from the University of Hull and a Masters in Political Science from the University of Delaware.