Five Crisis Lessons from 2020

We finally got past of what many people would describe as the worst year in their lives. It is true that COVID-19 has upended lives in ways we would not have imagined a year ago. Yet, even amid global pandemic, rising racial discrimination issues and political divide, we have experienced a record-setting year of natural disasters. Corporations continue to struggle with smoldering issues that have inflicted long-term reputational harm. Here are a few crisis communications lessons we’ve (hopefully) learned in an extraordinary year.

1. Have a plan. Update and exercise it regularly. This should go without saying, but the truth is that four in ten organizations worldwide have no crisis plan! According to PRNewsOnline, “About 62 percent of companies have crisis plans, though it’s uncertain how many regularly update them. In addition, few companies consistently practice crisis scenarios.” Regular exercises build critical crisis team skills, especially the ability to react quickly and make decisions when an issue arises.

2. Overcome denial and address the elephant in the room. Many companies that do have plans don’t consider the most likely kinds of crises, namely mismanagement, ethical and compliance issues that are much more likely to occur than natural disasters and other kinds of sudden crises. Cybercrime is on the rise, too. Research by the Institute for Crisis Management® over the past three decades has consistently identified smoldering crises as much more likely to occur. Make sure your plan includes response scenarios for issues like cybercrime, mismanagement, white collar crime, harassment and discrimination, among others.

3. You may have to blow up your communications plan. One of the things we have learned during the pandemic, with millions working from home, is that the communications tools we used to rely upon are not as effective in this new reality. Be prepared to get creative and explore new (or old) ways to communicate with employees and other stakeholders.

4. Video meetings are here to stay. It is amazing what we can adapt to when that is our only choice! Organizations worldwide were forced into remote work and video meetings thanks to the pandemic. What most have learned is that it works better than expected. Get comfortable being on camera and provide guidelines for using video conferencing effectively. That includes wearing pants!

5. Leverage employee engagement on social media. Paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams missed the boat in July when they fired a young employee who built a huge online following with his creative paint mixing videos. Sherwin Williams punished an employee for being passionate about product. Instead, provide employees with clear-cut rules and expectations and let them showcase the brand. T-Mobile took this approach, finding that letting highly engaged employees interpret brand messaging was more effective than one booming corporate voice.
There are doubtless many more lessons that leaders and communications pros have learned in 2020. Don’t let those lessons be lost in 2021.

President and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management

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