What COVID-19 Teaches About Crisis Communications
COVID-19 is the perfect case study of crisis planning and crisis communications: from seeing the storm brewing, to the United States’ initial response, to on-going management and damage control, most anything you need to know about crisis management can be found in how COVID-19 has been managed. (Spoiler alert: this is not a critique on how COVID-19 has been managed and communicated; it’s only a primer on crisis communications).
1. Most crises you can see coming. Think of almost any crisis in modern history, and it’s one we’ve seen coming. 9.11. Savings and loan crisis of the late 70’s and 80’s. The subprime mortgage lending crisis, followed by the 2008 financial crisis. Think of crises that have developed on a smaller scale, in your business or even your home. It’s rare that a crisis erupts out of nowhere. Usually there are plenty of warning signs. COVID-19 is no different.
- We first learned about an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019. Cause unknown — first warning.
- January 11, first death reported. Serious, untreatable, mystery illness — second warning.
- Two days later, the first case is detected outside China, in Thailand. Problem growing — third warning.
- January 21, 2020, first confirmed case in the United States. Virus not contained — fourth warning.
2. Advance planning, before a problem becomes a full-blown crisis, mitigates damage. Every organization and business leader knows that advance planning is key to weathering a crisis and mitigating damage. Whether its insurance policies, robust risk management, or acknowledging problems from the outset and proactively seeking to solve them — or all of the above and then some — the best way to contain the crisis is to plan ahead. The same goes for COVID-19. The World Heath Organization was at ground zero in Wuhan, China tracking this new, mystery illness. Five days after it was first reported, WHO announced it’s 3-level response plan. Two and half months later, we are obviously still in “mitigate the damage” mode. The United States just declared a state of emergency this past week. Cancellations and closures all of kinds were announced at the beginning of last week to stop the spread.
3. Share information that is known, acknowledge what isn’t known. It’s rare when we know everything about all the consequences of a crisis. But what’s important is to communicate about what is known, and be transparent about what is not known. When large data breaches occurred several years ago, big companies like Target and Home Depot were proactive about sharing the information they had, when they had it. At the same time, they admitted to not knowing the exact scale and reach of the data breaches. As new information becomes available, that information can be shared as appropriate. COVID-19 presents the same way. There has been so much we don’t know about how this will impact us all, but was is known must be communicated so that people can take steps necessary to protect themselves. In any crisis, the absence of information is what fuels fear — because people fear what is not known.
COVID-19 will continue to have an untold impact to millions of people. Authentic, honest and clear communications is the best we can all do under these difficult circumstances.