An 80% increase in Google searches suggests that leaders are turning to lessons from crisis management to inform their communication and behavior as the pandemic continues to change the world. The tools, processes, and techniques for crisis management originated in the 1980s primarily to respond to the reputational (and regulatory) risks to businesses due to environmental and industrial disasters like the Bhopal gas disaster and the Exxon Valdez spill. Yet the current situation is fundamentally different from these traditional crisis management situations. Not only is the breadth and depth of its impact unparalleled, the degree of uncertainty prevalent on multiple fronts creates an entirely new situation. While some of the findings from the field of crisis management are still very much applicable, others are simply not.
To be effective in responding to this situation, it helps to understand what aspects of the traditional playbook are, and are not, applicable. Even the elements that are relevant may be particularly difficult to implement in today’s environment – being aware of why can help you avoid some of the pitfalls.
Risks in crisis management are often about doing the wrong thing, making the wrong statement, action on incomplete information, etc. Risks in uncertain times are often about not acting fast enough. Crisis management stresses risk mitigation with a hyper-focus on potential problems. During a crisis instigated by a breach of ethical practices or a product safety recall, this risk aversion can be helpful and possibly even required. However, the current pandemic crisis calls for more focus on speed, agility and expansive thinking. A purely risk aversion mindset calls for senior management to carefully orchestrate the response and all levels of communication. This is important for many reasons, including legal ones, in a crisis that is precipitated by action or inaction on the part of the business. However, the current situation calls for more local leadership and local decision making. Senior management cannot possibly have enough information on all regions to make the best decisions, especially when faced with differing regulations, policies, and customer behaviors. As Starbucks begins to reopen stores, it is relying on local decision making about whether to open, open with drive-through service only or open with social distancing guidelines in place. An uncertain, rapidly evolving situation calls for fast decision making and leadership from more people dispersed deeper within the organization than solely the individual at the top.
A global crisis uniquely activates a sense of shared experience. We are, quite literally, in this together. The rise of this common purpose to navigate the pandemic gives your customers and employees a higher degree of empathy for the situation we find ourselves in than a traditional crisis. This suggests that, in many ways, the current situation calls for what one might think of as proactive PR – focusing on promoting your organization rather than on crisis communication, which aims to defend your reputation. The tools of crisis communication are of limited use: your focus is not on monitoring social media for mentions of your business, but rather on understanding the path of the pandemic, the macroeconomic outlook and the implications for the type of business you’re in. The skills you need on the team that will help you navigate the current situation may, therefore, also look very different.
Other suggestions from classic crisis management, while relevant to the current situation, are proving difficult to execute. Take, for example, the advice to communicate often, with transparency and to take swift action. Advice that is even more relevant today and that makes intuitive sense – so why is it so difficult to actually do? The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, has come under criticism for withholding information from the public. In his own words: “we did not deliver certain information to the public because we did not want to stir panic.” The belief that by withholding transparency you can better control the situation is questionable even in a well-understood crisis, but in one defined by the ongoing uncertainty of the future could easily show your actions to be extremely shortsighted.
So, why do well meaning leaders find it so difficult to be transparent? There are two very powerful forces that are driving this behavior that is in conflict with the intention to communicate with transparency and honesty. The first of these is a management theory that was designed for a slowly changing environment. Management as a function is inherently risk-averse. It is biased towards control and reliability, putting a premium on having complete information and not making mistakes. This translates to sanitized, incomplete communication and deliberate, slow action. Communicating often in changing situations requires being comfortable with providing incomplete information. Transparency in communication during dynamically changing situations will invariably result in having to admit being wrong. You will likely need to walk back a previously made statement in light of new data becoming available. With the emphasis that our management theory and training has put on having reliable answers, making the right decisions, and being right, it is no wonder that leaders find it difficult to follow the seemingly obvious advice to be transparent and communicate often.
The second force is human nature. As we have written about previously, this element of human nature partly stems from brain-body hardwiring that enables us to respond to threats and opportunities. Our response to threats is unconsciously driven through a Survive Channel and results in a narrowing of focus that including an actual loss of peripheral vision. Leaders whose Survive Channel is highly activated will find it difficult to take a broad perspective and not focus on the proverbial trees at the expense of the forest. This leads to short-sighted decisions on what to communicate and what to hold back.
The impact of the Coronavirus crisis is clearly being felt not just in our professional lives, but also in our personal and social lives. Research has shown that in times of anxiety trust in leadership increases (possibly as a way to feel safer that someone is in charge) and individuals look to leaders to provide confidence, reassurance, and information. Business leaders might find themselves in the position of having to communicate not only about the business impact of the crisis, but also about the pandemic itself. This can leave leaders feeling underinformed, inexpert, or ill-equipped – causing them to avoid communicating entirely. In a recent survey we found that employees want to see their leaders communicate more, not less, about the long-term impacts of the pandemic. However, the longer-than-many-predicted nature of this particular crisis introduces more variables that lead to less clarity and hence more hesitation from leaders. By clearly articulating what is fact and what is either an opinion or a speculation, leaders can communicate with confidence without conveying a false sense of certainty. Press conferences with Andrew Cuomo are a great example of employing this strategy. By clearly expressing things that are opinions as such, he is able to communicate messages that are important for people to hear – even if these messages need to be revised in light of further information.
Crisis management tools are effective in situations that have a known end and where the elements are unfolding and evolving at a somewhat predictable pace. The combination of the speed with which the situation is changing and the innumerable unknowns in this particular crisis require a different approach – one that relies on open, transparent communication, flexibility and humility in pivoting as new information emerges, early and broad stakeholder engagement, and rapid decision making and experimentation.