Adnan Bashir, Senior Manager for Corporate Communications at Sigma Systems, explains how the job of communications professionals will never be the same.
It goes without saying that a cloud of uncertainty now hangs over us all – and is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. In the last few weeks, we have witnessed a cataclysmic disruption of national economies and global trade across the world. Uncountable numbers of people have lost their livelihoods, longstanding supply chains are being compromised and the stock markets are in free fall – seemingly with no end in sight – with many experts and analysts likening the fallout from the covid-19 outbreak to the Great Recession of 2008.
The communications industry is undergoing a level of turbulence never seen before as well: traditional crisis playbooks are thrown out the window – because, let’s face it, covid-19 is anything but ‘traditional.’
At this juncture, we need to differentiate between what is considered a ‘traditional’ crisis and the current state of affairs stemming from covid-19. For context, let us consider the Boeing 737 MAX debacle, Volkswagen’s Emissionsgate scandal or the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, given the digital ecosystem within which we all operate, news travels at the speed of sound, thanks to the proliferation of social media, smartphones and no small measure of citizen activism. But despite this phenomenon, it did take quite a while for these companies to feel the social and economic fallout from these crises, with a range of fumbling, backtracking and PR blunders taking place over the course of weeks.
Now, contrast that scenario with what is unfolding before us with the outbreak of covid-19. With national lockdowns rapidly coming into effect across the globe, cross-border restrictions, flight cancellations, major world events being called off and business operations being stifled, there has been a precipitous and almost unheard-of fall in economic productivity across the board – affecting employees, customers, the investor community and governments. What corporations have been confronted with is a completely unforeseen situation that they have no role in, and that goes beyond their control – or that of any entity, really.
Against this backdrop, customers need to be assured of business continuity, reliability, enterprise resilience, and operational support. Employees need lingering questions about payrolls answered. Investors may have doubts about overall business health and readiness, stock price and dividends. In some instances, if the company in question is a trusted partner or a provider of essential community services, the government might require assurances of its own as well.
This requires communicators and crisis managers to move rapidly and adapt to a highly fluid environment and a news cycle that seems to change not on a daily basis, but literally by the hour. Within this volatile environment, there is almost no time to react and, worse still, absolutely no room for error or for dragging your feet. Various stakeholders with competing concerns need to be assuaged – and quickly –, so corporate communications professionals need to formulate and roll out a cohesive strategy centered on a strong, central message that speaks to all parties involved. New methodologies and protocols will need to be put in place to address these black swan events, and even long-established ‘best practices’ might need some overhauling of their own.
So, what’s on the horizon? This is not a one-and-done approach. The war against covid-19 will be prolonged and drawn-out; as of March 25, at least three billion people worldwide were subject to some form of lockdown or quarantine, according to an AFP tally. At this point, there is no end in sight. Accordingly, the efforts of communications professionals will have to be prolonged as well. Their focus needs to be two-fold: maintaining a consistent cadence of communications with all concerned stakeholders, while simultaneously driving advocacy in the boardroom. We usually bemoan CCOs lacking a voice among the upper echelons of business leadership, but now more than ever, the onus will be on communicators to shape executive decision-making and policy in a decisive manner, and, where possible, guide community outreach initiatives as well.
When the dust settles and this episode in human history is behind us, society is likely to look at time through the lens of ‘Before covid-19’ and ‘After covid-19’. This will certainly be the case from the perspective of the communications industry as well. Much like how factors such as the digital landscape and a mobility-centric mindset, and the rise of China, have impacted how corporate communications professionals think and strategize, covid-19 will be a case study in crisis communications and management in business schools and public relations programs years from now.
More than any other conundrum in living memory, COVID-19 has revealed the innate need for a proficient crisis management strategy and the right people to drive it forward, in order to address multiple competing priorities and to safeguard an organization’s public perception. The question for us all to ponder as communicators is this: What have we learned and where do we go from here?