Interview: Post-pandemic resilience leads to greater crisis management preparedness

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WHILE social media, as a source of information, has often been met with controversy in recent years, it remains a valuable tool for building business connections, writes Orla Clancy. For me, Twitter facilitated an introduction to Bob Jensen (pictured), senior managing director at Strat3 LLC in Washington DC. Jensen’s ‘crisis management basics’ tweets prompted me to reach out and I learned more from him on the topic during a recent interview.

At the start of the conversation, I asked Jensen about what he believes are the crisis management lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic. “Most business continuity plans didn’t include the situations organisations faced during the opening months of the pandemic,” he said. “Businesses that were agile and flexible were able to quickly shift to a virtual footing. That, however, required existing strong IT infrastructure as well as a higher level of technical competence among teams. Smaller businesses and those without much IT structure found it much harder to make that transition.”

“Globally, governments had existing crisis communications strategies as well as excellent pandemic strategies. In practice, however, approaches varied greatly,” he said. “There was a major change in where and how people prefer to get their information. This required governments to shift their focus from traditional media to greater use of social media platforms, multilingual communication and alternative communications, such as virtual town halls, text messaging, public service advertising and use of third-party influencers. Some nations looked for role models in neighbours or larger countries and kept switching their approaches. Others were consistent, empathetic, science-based and explained when changes had to be made and why,” he said.

“We’ve learned many lessons and will continue to do so as the situation evolves further. Both the public and private sectors have had to learn and, in some cases, relearn critical lessons such as ensuring consistent messaging across all parts of the organisation,” said Jensen. “Organisations have had to learn to quickly adapt their business models to remain viable during pandemic restrictions. They have learned how to deal with limitations on the number of people in a facility, closures of many types of businesses and severe challenges to the global supply chains as international travel shut down.”

I then asked Jensen what the main changes are to the communications function and crisis strategies post-pandemic. He said that communicators have had to make both process and substance changes during the pandemic that are likely to remain in place in some form as we move into the post-pandemic period. 

“The process changes included learning to work remotely on virtual teams and securely setting that up within your organisation’s IT network. It was imperative for the communications team to be included in critical virtual meetings and on essential emails about incidents or issues. They also had to conduct media training and facilitate media engagements virtually,” he said.

“The substance changes” continued Jensen “included dealing with a growing volume of both mis- and disinformation as well as the politicisation of many issues central to both public and private sector operations. What used to be straightforward health and safety practices and policies, for example, have become hot-button issues for both local and national-level governments and businesses alike.” He said that wearing a mask, for example, might have been seen as an easy ask, but, in fact, became a divisive issue in many communities.

“Communications teams now need to work harder to find effective communication strategies to address controversial issues. They need to anticipate reactions. When something goes viral, a press release and a Tweet with a statement from the organisation is not sufficient to counteract the response. Communicating an organisation’s policies that are based on government rules and health experts’ guidance no longer works as it did in the past and many organisations are finding themselves caught in the middle between government rules and a sometimes skeptical public,” he said.

Finally, as we look ahead to 2022, I was interested to hear about the potential crises that organisations are currently focused on in their business continuity plans. Jensen said that the issues he is asked about from both governments and businesses are extensive. They include handling and predicting disruptions around global and domestic supply chain challenges. How to maintain staff in the face of massive resignations, coupled with an expected surge of retirements, is also a challenge. Protecting against and preventing cyberattacks are also central concerns as well as responding to and protecting against disinformation and “Fake News” campaigns. Business continuity plans are also focusing on preparing for another global financial crisis and better planning for and mitigating the impacts of increasing extreme weather and other disasters. For whatever they may face next, there can be no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to greater crisis management preparedness for governments and organisations globally.