December 30th, 2020
[The following blog originally appeared as a post on Forbes.com that Edward Segal wrote as a Leadership Strategy contributor. His other posts on Forbes.com can be read at https://www.forbes.com/search/?q=Edward%20Segal&sh=696c69c8279f]
In December, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reversed plans ease pandemic-related restrictions in London and southeast England over Christmas. Why the sudden change? Because Britain was now dealing with a mutation of Covid-19 that is dramatically more transmissible.
Johnson’s dramatic announcement underscored an important reality about responding to crisis situations: when circumstances change, you need to change your strategies and tactics accordingly.
For some business leaders, that may be easier said than done.
There are several reasons why corporate executives won’t or can’t change course when needed in the middle of a crisis. They include red tape, internal politics, pride, longstanding policies, and the attitude that “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Unfortunately, every minute you delay in adjusting to the new facts about a crisis situation could mean the crisis will continue or get worse. And when it comes to an international public health emergency such as Covid-19, delays put the health and lives of people at risk.
A Process For Pivoting In A Crisis
Just as a crisis should be managed in a careful and deliberate way, so should the steps in preparing to pivot in the crisis when the need arises.
“By its very nature, a crisis situation is a fluid and dynamic one,” noted Laura Guitar, executive vice president of crisis communication and issue management at rbb Communications.
“It’s easy for executive decision makers to find themselves in an echo chamber, missing cues that would suggest contrary points of view. For this reason, it is absolutely critical that organizations in crisis are prepared to monitor and receive feedback on an ongoing basis in real time, with the expectation that the initial crisis response may need to be refined or even altered altogether,” she said.
The feedback process may include the creation of a monitoring dashboard, aggregating data from customer service, sales, operations, communications, etc, Guitar noted. “This allows efficacy of the crisis response to be understood through varied lenses and as a whole across the organization. For big, complicated [crisis] situations, it’s impossible to know everything in the early stages. Room should always be made for strategic evolutions based on data and information that emerges over time,” Guitar recommended.
Assess and Evaluate
Justin Beck is the founder and CEO of Contakt World which provides communication services to healthcare organizations. “Depending on the nature of a crisis and the type of company you run, [you] can assess whether your approach to managing it is working through customer behavior, social listening, staff morale, and/or investor sentiment” if your company is publicly traded, he said.
Joe Householder, senior vice president at Hill & Knowlton Strategies, said “…given all of the resources crisis communicators now have, it is incumbent on us and our clients/companies to be constantly evaluating and reevaluating our approach.
“With social media, the never ending news cycle, and countless research tools that are available to us, we are no longer shouting into the void. Feedback is instantaneous, so adjustments can and should be made instantaneously. At the same time, however, we cannot allow the data flow to force us to make knee jerk adjustments in panic mode. We have to apply judgement and even patience to make sure that any tactical or strategic adjustments don’t blow up in our client’s faces,” he noted.
Gayle Falkenthal, a veteran communication consultant who specializes in crisis communication, said, “Companies and organizations managing and responding to a crisis must seek and monitor feedback from all target audiences and stakeholders at every step of their response.“
Apply What You Learn
“How is the response being received? Is the messaging understood? Is the response mitigating the situation, or making it worse? This feedback should be assessed and applied to course corrections as the response progresses. Waiting until the ‘end’ of the crisis to assess how the response was received is a lost opportunity. If there’s a problem with the response, you need to fix it,” Falkenthal advised.
As Johnson demonstrated last week, it was important for the British government to change course in the coronavirus crisis as soon as there was sufficient reason to do so — just as it is in the business world.
“Companies should change the way they are managing a crisis the moment they realize what they are doing to fix or overcome it is wrong. There is no room for being stubborn in a crisis,” Beck said.