The Coronavirus, the Butterfly and the Pilot

11 May 2020
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Every crisis has an end. The current coronavirus pandemic will have its own. It'll be the fourth Phase with a return to normalcy for just about everything except the economy.

After the tsunami, whether viral or not, it will be the longer period of economic crisis with its companies in distress or bankruptcy. But as recent history has taught us, there is no black and white answer to the state of health of businesses.

With the tools made available to companies, particularly in France, there is much more talk of shades of grey. Therefore, even if the difficulties are serious, the main thing is to preserve the company’s assets. Whether human or material, this capital must be protected to ensure a continuity and a possible rebound. This is what is at stake in a well thought-out, adapted and well-applied crisis communication.

The butterfly’s wing

In 1972, the meteorologist Edward Lorenz, raised the key question, “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” He invented the “butterfly effect” theory.

The coronavirus crisis, which originated in China for a supposedly grim story about bats, is indeed a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. On the other side of the world, it is the tornado on the markets. Oil has dropped in one fell swoop, dropping below the $40 barrier, which it can cost more to produce than to sell. We know less about this level, which affects the financing contracts of entire countries, which consequently become null and void. Global tourism has been blocked. Airlines are in turmoil. The chain of events is beginning to unfold, and the economic crisis is resurfacing.

Each company will go through this epidemiological crisis in its own way. Each one will have to adapt its communication. As with the virus, there are three periods to consider: prevention, treatment and the end of the crisis.

In the prevention period, the company must identify the stakeholders, estimate the impacts on each one and communicate carefully with each target. If disruptions in production are plausible, this must be said as soon as possible. If service closures are plausible, employees must be able to predict this situation. The doubt which creates fear, is not allowed. A company can never be blamed for communicating. However, the opposite case is true.

In the period of dealing with difficulties, the company is faced with unforeseen or exceptional elements. It is in crisis. Crisis processes must be set in motion. The crisis unit is set up with its crisis communication team. Except when, for one reason or another, we do not have one.

A pilot in the plane

Many companies of all types will be concerned: the one whose factory stops due to a lack of deliveries from Asian suppliers, the one whose cruise ship stays at quay, the one renting chairs and its client the event agency, the catering company without orders or the shop network without products for sale.

Communicating then becomes urgent because it is necessary to explain and above all to remain in control of the agenda. If the company can turn itself around, the troops must be mobilized and demonstrate day after day that there is a pilot in the plane. If there is no more hope, then the procedures that will close it must be conducted cleanly, without clashes or noise, in order to preserve the value of the CVs of the team whose members are going to look for a new position. In short, the “signified” must be dealt with some dignity.

In a crisis, its end is often overlooked. However, one must know how to whistle the end of the mobilization. When the storm has passed, communication remains an issue. Stakeholders will listen and will legitimately want to know what the impacts of the past crisis have been.

Minimizing the damage or overestimating it, is useless in a world where transparency catches up with everything.

A metaphor often used to evoke crisis management in companies is that of the hospital case. The company is then the patient. If it goes to the emergency room, to intensive care or is put on an IV, it is not the same thing as taking an X-ray of a broken arm. The company’s communication then consists of explaining in which department it is being treated in order to avoid any confusion. The perception is that the company is going into the hospital. The information is to know in which department and for which disorder or pathology. The communication principle is to explain when it will be discharged and with what treatment.


Guillaume Foucault, President of CORPCOM, a network partner of Navigate Response

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