Shortly after ushering in the new decade, the world found itself plunged into a rapidly escalating crisis of global proportions.
A mysterious and silent killer in the form of a novel coronavirus emerged and began sweeping across all corners of the world.
Governments and business leaders struggled to make sense of what is now known as the Covid-19 pandemic. The public quickly demanded answers which their crisis playbooks could not provide.
There are typically no crisis playbooks for black swan events or ‘unknown unknowns’, a term used by former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld back in 2002 to describe future events and outcomes that we can neither predict nor plan for.
How then can we communicate effectively during such crises? I would like to put forward three basic guiding principles.
Good leadership during a crisis begins with acknowledging the problem at hand and taking full responsibility. By taking on the mantle of leadership, companies gain legitimacy which in turn has a positive impact on how their crisis communications is received.
On the other hand, leaders who shirk responsibility by downplaying the problem or deflecting blame to others may find that their crisis communications is met with scepticism.
For crises where the outcomes are unclear, it is vital that leaders stay open-minded and receptive to the advice from subject-matter experts. What they choose to communicate should be based on data and evidence.
Leaders who choose to jump to premature conclusions based on hunches and pseudo-science may find that their crisis communications response receives little or no credibility.
The poet John Lydgate once said: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
This maxim holds true for crisis communications, especially for crises with far-reaching impacts across society. The goal of crisis communications is not to function as a populist tool but to communicate all relevant information and policy decisions (including unpopular decisions) in the spirit of transparency and accountability.
The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us that crises and the way they are handled may rapidly evolve when new information becomes available. For example, when there was new evidence that the coronavirus could be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, health authorities made the decision to backpedal on an earlier public health advisory regarding the wearing of face masks only by individuals who exhibit flu-like symptoms.
Although the policy reversal was regarded as a major mistake by some members of the public, it won the trust of those who appreciated the honesty and humility behind the decision to communicate the policy U-turn.
Perhaps the biggest challenge today for crisis communications is to manage misinformation surrounding any given crisis.
In the example of the Covid-19 pandemic, some critics have suggested that misinformation of the crisis could have spread more quickly than the virus itself.
The digital age that we live in, and our growing reliance on the Internet and social media for formal and informal sources of information, have fuelled the propagation of misinformation by organisations and individuals.
Effective crisis communications practitioners must actively monitor digital media channels to identify, analyse and to abate the spread of misinformation as it appears.
What is equally important in maintaining clarity is to avoid sending mixed messages. There have been many instances where the public have been confused by mixed messages frompoliticians and health authorities regarding Covid-19.
Crisis communications must be concise, easy to understand, and free from jargon.
The crisis playbook in a post-COVID-19 world
Few had predicted a global pandemic to occur in their lifetimes, much less prepare for it. Some may argue that a playbook for such a crisis never existed.
As we grapple with new realities of social distancing and work-from-home arrangements, organisations that do eventually emerge from the crisis will re-examine their crisis preparedness plans from a whole new perspective.