Is crisis the “new normal?” We have always seen our fair share of catastrophic events and crises. But, in recent years those events seem to be increasing in frequency and severity. We are seeing more headline-grabbing disasters like data breaches, corporate scandals, extreme weather events and now, pandemics.
New technology introduced in the past decade has fundamentally and dramatically changed the way we communicate with one another and the way businesses operate and deliver value to customers and clients. Our constant state of digital transformation together with, what appears to be more frequent and severe crisis events, highlights the need for proactive, interdepartmental crisis planning and a strong crisis response strategy. Begin able to manage crisis effectively from initial identification through the public relations barrage has never been more important than it is today.
The Nature of Crisis
The word crisis originates from the Greek krisis, which means “decisive point in the progress of a disease,” and, also “vitally important or decisive state of things, point at which change must come, for better or worse.” No one is immune from crisis. Organizations, large and small, regardless of industry and geography are all vulnerable. Crisis does not discriminate.
A crisis that hits an organization is typically, some sort of event or trend that threatens the viability of the organization in some, or multiple ways. A crisis can arise quickly or build slowly. It can last for a long time or conclude abruptly. Once the crisis passes it can be forgotten or linger in public memory. The key aspect of crisis is that the outcome is fundamentally uncertain. To experience a true crisis is a bit like walking a tightrope, blindfolded, without a net.
The Crisis of the Century: COVID-19
Many believe the COVID-19 pandemic will be the defining crisis of the century. The COVID-19 crisis is not likely a risk most companies contemplated or planned for. The outbreak and the resulting shelter-in-place orders issued around the globe literally shut the world down in a matter of weeks.
From the moment the pandemic was declared, companies were faced with overwhelming, competing challenges and have been forced to operate in uncharted territory. Some organizations were more prepared than others. Organizations without comprehensive crisis plans were scrambling to react and respond. Even those with plans in place struggled. In many instances, the fast moving and unexpected elements of the crisis, exposed weaknesses in plans and teams.
Crisis planning has never been as important as it is today. The COVID-19 crisis will transform the world. We cannot rely on crisis plans that were drafted two year ago, or even ones drafted two months ago! This is the time to reevaluate, revise, and renew your organization’s crisis plan – or create one if you do not already have a formal plan in place.
Each crisis and its impact will be unique. Crisis plans should be customized to your business based on several different factors such as size, industry, geography etc. The plan should be short, easy to follow and flexible. Below are a things to consider as you re-think and re-invent crisis planning:
1. Consider and Incorporate the Impact of Social Media. Social media has fundamentally changed the way news is developed, delivered, and consumed. Today, social media is the primary source of news for most people and everyone is a reporter. People need information during a crisis. A crisis – large or small – will likely hit social media channels in the blink of an eye. You have very little time to think and consider your response to a crisis. Our news cycle is 24/7. Organizations must be prepared to react in a matter of minutes or risk being thrown into a downward social media spiral. The speed and transparency of your response will be key.
2. Consider and Incorporate the Impact of a Crisis within a Crisis. There is no rule that says just because you are in the middle of a crisis you can’t experience another one. Consider, and plan for, how your organization will respond to a crisis while in a crisis. For example, many organizations are being hit with ransomware attacks while trying to operate in a fully remote work environment. Employees are distracted and dispersed. IT professionals are stretched thin. Executives are exhausted and juggling multiple priorities. We are all “running with scissors” right now. Consider whether your organization would be able to respond quickly and effectively to a cyber-attack that happens today? Would your response be as strong as it would have been pre-COVID-19?
3. Conduct a Holistic Risk Transfer and Insurance Gap Analysis. The speed and efficiency with which your organization responds to a crisis will affect the resulting financial impact on the organization. Liability lawsuits and regulatory investigations are inevitable. Now is the time to conduct a holistic risk transfer and insurance gap analysis. Take the time to fully evaluate your risk transfer mechanisms (contract-based and insurance-based) so you have a firm understanding of where your unprotected financial risk lies. Look for gaps (or overlap) in your individual insurance products as well as your overall insurance portfolio. Review and evaluate contracts with vendors and other business partners to identify strengths and weaknesses in contract wording, specifically addressing obligations in unforeseen circumstances and indemnification.
4 Consider Executive Coaching for Crisis Leadership. Even accomplished leaders can struggle when crisis hits. Not every leader will be able to respond to each and every crisis effectively. Leading through crisis not a skill every leader has. Consider incorporating some level of executive coaching specifically for leading through crisis events.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice. Even the best of the best crisis plans will fail if they are not routinely practiced. Use different methods to stress-test and practice your plans. Case studies, decision-making trainings, incident simulations and full-on drills creating as close to a “real” scenario as possible. Be creative. Every crisis will present different challenges and may require different members of your Crisis Team to engage in different ways. Challenge, train and educate your Crisis Team and your Executive Leaders.
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis has been severe and extensive on many levels. Even though we are starting to see signs of a return to “normal,” the long-term impact of the pandemic will be with us for years to come.
What comes next will not likely be a return to pre-COVID life or business practices. We will likely see shifts in cultural norms, societal values and behaviors, as well as changes in the way businesses deliver value to their customers and clients.
Crisis transforms us. How prepared we are for the next crisis will determine how strong we are coming out of it. Proactive and creative crisis planning is more important than ever as we move into the post-COVID world.
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