COVID-19 Features

COVID-19 CRISIS: 4 POWERFUL LESSONS FOR PUBLIC RELATIONS PROFESSIONALS

By Rarzack Olaegbe

The world has not seen a disease so contagious as Covid-19 in many decades. The devastation it has wrought on humanity is unimaginable. It has destroyed a lot of lives and put the livelihoods of billions of people across the world in serious jeopardy. The World Economic Forum reported recently that the global economic damage from the pandemic is over a trillion dollars, and still counting.

Despite the uncertainty and the very difficult business environment cast on the world by the pandemic, some organizations have been able to put their best foot forward and take meaningful actions to defend or enhance their reputations. Others have failed woefully in this regard. Their inability to make sense of the situation early enough, compounded by lack of preparedness for a pandemic crisis of this magnitude, has cast a big shadow over their reputations and dampen their futures.

Anyone with good professional training in Public Relations and communication management can draw many lessons from the successes and failures of these organizations. In this article, 1 intend to look at four lessons which I consider vital to effective crisis management of a pandemic such as Covid-19. Let’s take them one by one.

LESSON ONE: Focus on Planning, Not Plans.
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” This military adage says it all. The sworn-enemy of humanity called Covid-19 is capturing territories, decimating the human population and destroying the global economy at a magnitude never before seen in human history. It is not waiting for anyone to catch up. It is not standing still. You cannot survive such a marauding devil with a static plan.

In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous adverse situation such as the Covid-19 pandemic, you need to move quickly, pick up new facts as they emerge while taking decisive actions to protect the reputation of your organization. What works is continuous planning done in short iteration cycles. With it you can capture new information, new developments and new issues as they emerge to enrich your decisions.

This means that your crisis management strategy and key Public Relations messages, media channels and tactics may have to change from time to time as the situation demands. To ever think that you can manage a pandemic crisis of this magnitude with a static plan, or any other crisis for that matter is the greatest foolery of the millennium.

LESSON TWO: Organizations That Pursue Social Purpose Are The Real Winners.
Covid-19 has awakened us to the reality of human existence. We can all see with our eyes how vulnerable humanity can be. We can see why living meaningfully by giving ourselves, our talents and our skills to nurture society and be sensitive to the needs of others protects us, uplifts our souls and fills us with joy in ways power or status cannot compare.

The signs of this awakening of human consciousness are there for everyone to see. Organizations that act with purpose are winning from every angle. They are winning the hearts and minds of their stakeholders and the general public now than ever before. Their customers are ready to reward them with brand loyalty, which translates to a robust customer base and pricing power.

A study by MWW Public Relations, a leading independent and integrated Public Relations agency in the United States of America reveals that 83% of consumers will base the future purchase decisions on corporate response to the Covid-19 pandemic. And the leading factors that will drive judgment and purchase considerations include: how a company treats its workforce during the pandemic (86%), and whether a brand operated as a good or bad corporate citizen during the pandemic (84%).

LESSON THREE: The Power of Press Conference As A Tool Of Crisis Management Has Not Waned
The talk about the press conference being killed by digital revolution is not true after all. We are witnessing its power in full splendor as the go-to tool for Covid-19 risk and crisis communication. Governments all over the world are using it to tell their citizens how the virus spreads, who are vulnerable, the infection and fatality rates in their countries, the behaviours that can expose their citizens to the infections and how to guard against them. They also use it to inform them of all that they are doing to tackle the virus in order to keep them safe. Some are done virtually; others are done the traditional way while observing all the Covid-19 protocols prescribed by the World Health Organization.

LESSON FOUR: The Quality Of Crisis Leadership Determines The Behaviour Of Stakeholders.
Whether stakeholders will show understanding and support to an organization during a crisis depends on a lot of factors, such as:
– The trust they have on the leadership of the crisis
– The level of empathy or sensitivity demonstrated by the leadership
– A clear sense of direction by the leadership, and
– The ability of the leadership to give hope that all will soon be well.

Transparency in what the leadership does and says during a crisis lays the foundation for stakeholders’ trust. But this depends on the quality of relationship and experiences had with the leadership in the past. In other words, if their experiences with the leadership in the past were anything but trustworthy, then it will not be trusted in a crisis situation no matter what they say and do. In his March 2020 article for Deloitte Insight, the Heart off Leadership, Punit Renjen sums up the trust of organizational leadership in a time of crisis thus: Trust is equal to transparency plus relationship plus experience.

Stakeholders expect empathy or sensitivity from the leadership of organizations in times of crisis. They expect support to help them wade through the emotional, financial and other difficulties that crisis present. To employees, empathy could mean remote and flexible work options, adequate health and safety measures for those who, by the nature of their works, must continue to work from the office. It could also mean timely risk communication.

In times of crisis, uncertainty rules the air. Leadership must demonstrate a clear sense of direction with a clear plan for tackling the crisis, even when we all know that most crisis are always evolving. This is what the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden did and was praised for giving the world a master class in crisis leadership. With a clear “elimination goal” for Covi-19 coupled with honest and transparent communication, she has been able to give hope to New Zealanders that the end will soon be in sight. Till date we have not heard of rampant disregard for Covid-19 safety protocols in New Zealand.

Juxtapose her approach with Donald Trump’s flip-flops and Nigeria’s President’s lackluster approach at the onset of the pandemic. It is on record that President Buhari did not address Nigerians on the pandemic until after two weeks. The controversy generated by his Minister of Health concerning “Chinese Doctors” who, according to the minister, were brought into the country by the government to share their experiences on how to handle the pandemic but turned out to be employees of a Chinese company operating in Nigeria, compounded the problem. It is easy to understand why Americans and Nigerians are finding it difficult to follow Covid-19 safety protocols.

Last Words
How Covid-19 crisis has been managed so far presents to Public Relations practitioners several lessons in crisis management, especially when it comes to pandemics. The number of lessons you learn or fail to learn determines how powerful or powerless you will be when faced with a crisis situation in the future. Observe, monitor and learn as much as you can until the pandemic is over, and you will be richer and well positioned for other crises in the future.

Rarzack Olaegbe is a co-founder and director of Emaginations, a Lagos-based Public Relations Firm