Outlook: Key areas of crisis management strategies in 2022 (and beyond)

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Bob Jensen, senior managing director at Strat3 LLC, writes about issues and challenges due to the pandemic, looks at four key issues to be ready for in 2022, and shares his view on how the crisis management and crisis communication fields must evolve to manage even larger and more complex issues.

THE global pandemic we’ve been living with since the start of 2020 has had both expected and unexpected consequences. It will certainly have significant second and third order effects that will last for many more years. Long-term impact will persist even after it’s under some semblance of “control” and things start to return to a new normal.  

Issues that arose during the pandemic, from the early shortage of critical supplies and equipment to overwhelmed and overloaded hospitals and morgues to massive economic consequences leading to closures and restrictions on businesses, schools and international travel, have combined into a tidal wave of change. Risk and crisis managers are still trying to decipher that change and craft new strategies to protect organisations from further fallout.  

In the health arena, it is likely that we will have to deal with Covid-19 annually for the foreseeable future. The Covid booster will eventually seem like another annual flu shot. However, for now, it’s still not clear exactly when our current prevention requirements will lift, or if further lockdowns will be needed.

Other changes caused by Covid, such as a massive migration to virtual offices and schooling, more dining at home via takeout or delivery, online buying rather than going to the store and attending virtual events instead of in-person conferences, will continue, and maybe even to a greater extent than originally thought. Travel, however, is making a comeback, as are sports and other in-person leisure activities. People are tired of being cooped up. On the negative side, violent crime is also rising again.

There are many articles that list possible scenarios for the coming year. Many involve geopolitical issues with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Others talk about continuing or cascading financial effects of the turndown during the first six months of the pandemic. Still, others focus on the effects of climate change. It’s useful for organisations to consider all the possibilities that are being suggested and pick those most relevant for them.

Here are four issues I think organisations should plan for in 2022.

Workforce disruption 

This could be caused by unclear planning or policies about working virtually where staff have to come back into the office. Many will want to continue working from home and are uncertain about the health and safety aspects of going back to the office. The growing politicisation of central elements of basic workplace safety, such as mask wearing and vaccination requirements as well as requirements for customers, can all lead to situations that can quickly get out of hand and go viral from someone’s smart phone. Clear internal communications plans and efforts are a must for all organisations regarding the workplace to help prevent some issues from growing into a crisis. Additionally, the continuing trend of increasing numbers of resignations added to the numbers of retiring staff and also the loss of many foreign workers due to travel and entry restrictions all could produce major problems and issues for organisations globally.

Global financial uncertainty

The continuing impacts and cascading economic effects of the pandemic tied to both global and domestic supply chains are requiring businesses and governments to rethink their planning, including looking at restructuring “just in time” processes as well as moving to diversify sources. Many nations saw the challenges from having a significant proportion of their imports and exports tied to single countries and are now looking at how to diversify through alternatives to spread the risk. Moreover, even though many businesses are slowly coming back, many went out of business altogether and some are having a hard time staffing to handle a renewed surge of customers. The recent slow-down of the Chinese economy will have further effects globally both in financial markets (if their housing market collapses) and in export markets. 

Disinformation explosion 

What started as a nuisance at the beginning of the social media era has rapidly expanded during the last 3 to 5 years. It is more sophisticated and employs technologically advanced methods that are making it more difficult to combat, and nearly impossible to shut down. In the old days of propaganda, there was a limitation in terms of cost and volume due to the technology needed to make and distribute disinformation products. Today, those limitations are all but gone. On social media, a disinformation campaign can start a crisis in minutes and very quickly go viral. There’s no easy way to stop it once that’s happened and it will take a concerted effort to counter the negative effects. More and more governments and businesses are creating agencies and units specifically to combat disinformation. It will take a much broader effort and strong, trusting partnerships across business sectors and between governments to be more successful at countering false and malicious information.

Cyberattacks continue to be a growing threat 

The threat of cyberattacks has become a perpetual fact. For most organisations, second only to the pandemic, cyber threats and cyberattacks are the biggest threats and have a major impact on the global economy. The good thing is that the cybersecurity industry is growing rapidly as more organisations take this as seriously as it needs to be taken. Cybersecurity is rightly recognised as a CEO issue, not an IT issue. 

Every organisation needs to include these issues in their risk assessments, strategies and crisis planning.  

Just as the field of emergency management moved from focusing on disaster response to a greater focus on disaster risk reduction, crisis management has been moving from an incident-driven reactive posture to one more focused on prevention and mitigation through proactive efforts. 

One area that I’m getting more requests about is emerging threat identification. For example, in early January 2020, I advised clients to review their pandemic and / or health crisis planning and tweeted the same message. I saw the messages and warnings coming from various sources including the World Health Organization. Most countries and businesses took a ‘wait and see’ approach when they should have been urgently preparing.  

Crisis managers and crisis communicators will need to learn new skills and work in partnership with other organisations to handle some of the complex issues they will face in 2022 (and beyond). Expanding skillsets and learning new approaches to combat disinformation will be critical. It is also important to have a deeper understanding of how the global and domestic supply chains actually work and where your organisation fits into them. Communicators need a better understanding of how and where customers (and the public in general) prefer to get their information and the impact this is having on the whole media and communication world. They need to gain a deeper understanding of the political spectrum and how issues are being politicised. 

Crisis managers and crisis communicators are already used to dealing with uncertainty and unique situations. The challenges they will face in 2022 are something they can handle by evolving their approach, sharing lessons learned and joining with other organisations to overcome larger issues. Preparing for the unexpected was not a new concept in 2020, and it is less so now as we emerge equipped with the experience of living through and managing a pandemic.