What has the pandemic taught us about crisis management?

Wellbeing casual socialisation

The coronavirus pandemic has caused immense personal misery and economic ruin. But it has also produced some important lessons for crisis managers.

The word crisis has long been misused or trivialised by organisations to apply to just about any problem or embarrassment. But COVID-19 has changed all that. With more than 4 million dead globally, hundreds of millions infected, and many more millions out of work, the pandemic has driven home that a crisis can affect any organisation, large or small, with terrible impact.

Organisations that had never experienced an existential crisis suddenly lost much of their business; were forced to shut down; could no longer access vital markets or raw materials; or had to lay off some or all their staff. Many closed for good.

As a result, every executive should by now clearly understand the potential devastation of a real crisis. However, we know from research that a worrying proportion of organisations are woefully unprepared and have no effective crisis plan. Only time will tell whether COVID-19 has persuaded more to put even the basic elements of a plan in place.

Communicating risk

Another crucial lesson from the coronavirus pandemic is about the difficulty of trying to communicate a proper understanding of individual and societal risk, and translating that into preventive action.

Crises often involve risk and it’s nothing new that risk as perceived by the public can be diametrically opposed to risk as calculated by experts. There is hardly any more vivid example of this challenge than public resistance and misconception about the risks of COVID-19 vaccination.

Properly communicating risk is no easy task for crisis managers, and a lasting legacy of COVID-19 is the rise of groundless conspiracies; intractable political polarisation over response to a major disease outbreak; and ever-increasing suspicion of official experts.

False dichotomy

Closely linked to perception of risk is the third development that has been highlighted by the pandemic, namely the concept of the false dichotomy or false choice.

While COVID-19 is frequently over-simplified as a binary choice between health and wealth, those are very obviously not mutually exclusive options. It is entirely possible for a country to shut down and still have high numbers of virus cases, and equally possible to keep business open and not have virus out of control.

A false dichotomy typically oversimplifies a scenario to seemingly make sense of something very complex, and the COVID-19 false choice has been blatantly used by politicians and the media to justify completely contradictory responses – sometimes with disastrous public health results.

The lesson here is the danger that once an oversimplified ‘construction’ like health vs wealth gains currency, it becomes accepted as reality and it’s virtually impossible to keep discussion of the crisis on track and focused on facts. Just look how anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers and individual-rights advocates dominate large areas of public engagement.

Crisis management lessons to be learned

While none of these developments is novel, the pandemic has supercharged them for a long-lasting impact on crisis communication into the future for organisations of all types.

After just about every major crisis there is typically a renewed – but sometimes short-lived – focus on some aspect of the core issue. Such as fresh concern about corporate ethics after the Banking Royal Commission; or safety standards after the Black Saturday bushfires; or crisis preparedness in the wake of 9/11. Yet experience shows complacency tends to return and the learning opportunity is lost.

COVID-19 has brought about some real lessons for crisis management, and organisations need to make sure the benefit of that learning is not squandered once the pandemic finally passes. Now truly is the time to be looking forward and getting properly prepared for the next crisis.

An extended version of this analysis appears in Crisis Response Journal

Tony Jaques is an expert on issue and crisis management and risk communication. He is CEO of Melbourne-based consultancy Issue Outcomes and his latest book is Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.

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