Early Crisis Communications Lessons from a Global Pandemic

In four months, the world has moved from the diagnosis of a new viral infection to extreme, dramatic action across virtually all sectors to stem the tide of the global COVID-19 pandemic, causing worldwide disruption and a likely global recession along the way. This is a kind of crisis we have never seen before – a non-violent, whole-world crisis in the digital age, where information travels at lightning speed across all borders, and people (and the germs they carry) also have unprecedented mobility. We here at KARV have always advocated for early and thorough crisis preparation and planning, but there are a couple key takeaways from the experiences of the last several weeks that should inform future crisis planning for all types of organizations.

First, enterprises should have contingency plans for crisis on a global scale. While most global corporations have business continuity plans, many assume that when one office or region is impacted – by, say, a hurricane or terrorist attack – offices, employees, and infrastructure in other locations will be able to shoulder additional operational burden until the affected location recovers. Today some global companies are struggling to implement business continuity plans across every office worldwide more or less simultaneously – rendering that playbook useless.

For smaller enterprises who may not have ever had the option to shift operations to a distant location, crisis plans may have rested on a different assumption – that organizations based elsewhere could step up to fill a need until business could resume as usual. An event hitting most locations around the world at almost the same time, outside of war, is unprecedented.

Second, agile, real-time decision making and communication to key stakeholders (customers and clients;  investors/shareholders; media; employees; suppliers and business partners; local and national elected officials and regulators; retirees; among others) is critical. As the coronavirus spreads on an exponential growth curve, the nature of the crisis has changed daily – sometimes hourly – since it began. Meeting the changing demands of local governments, business operations, and employee and public health and safety needs as COVID-19 morphed from a new diagnosis to an epidemic to a global pandemic, and as it continues to grow in scale, requires an organizational decision-tree structure with clearly assigned roles and responsibilities, and established mechanisms for communicating regular updates and new decisions to all relevant audiences.

Many businesses have seen several different iterations of business continuity plans implemented in the space of weeks if not days – such as a corporate headquarters deciding to limit employee travel, then organizing into teams which rotate working remotely or in the office, then finally moving all employees to remote work. The ability to gather information, update business plans based on current circumstances, and, crucially, convey all new decisions to any affected stakeholders in real-time is critical.

Organizations must have ways to reach all those affected, in all relevant languages, at all times of day – and, ideally, backup communications channels in case the original method malfunctions. Indeed, with many enterprises having abruptly moved to remote work, reaching these critical constituencies may now have to be done via a range of existing and new (and sometimes untested) platforms – incorporating text, email, conference calls and phone trees, Slack, video conference, social media, etc. And the worst time to put together a decision tree, assign spokesperson responsibilities, or determine outreach procedures is after a crisis has already begun to impact the company and its operations.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations will be revisiting – or creating from scratch – crisis and business continuity plans, and this planning will need to encompass a deeper, broader scope than ever before. Of course, KARV remains ready to assist organizations in any stage of crisis planning or management, and we offer our best wishes for the health and well-being of all affected during this difficult time around the world.