The illusion of preparedness in crisis communication » Strategy | Wbactive

By Josh Cobden

Stay-at-home orders. Closed offices and schools. shortage of goods. closed borders. Sound familiar? In fact, these terms all come from news reports about World War II. But you can be forgiven for associating it with COVID-19 80 years later, because for many of us the outbreak was an unprecedented crisis.

This provided a unique opportunity to examine how prepared organizations were when the pandemic was declared in March 2020.

We surveyed more than 100 executives in Canada and the US who run large companies with 500 to 10,000 employees. We interviewed a smaller group to add further context.

The research revealed three themes: an “illusion of readiness”; a wave of PR panic buying; and a view among many leaders that communication is someone else’s responsibility. While nine out of ten executives have told us they will increase Their investment in post-pandemic communications (more than a third say “significant”), how they behave in the next crisis depends on what they spend it on and their commitment to building trust.

But first, let’s go back in time.

When asked how prepared their organizations were for the communication challenges of the pandemic, a whopping 80% of executives said they were “prepared” or “very well prepared”. However, further surveys show that less than half had crisis communication plans, trained spokespersons, crisis simulations or adequate communication channels in place at the onset of COVID-19. A strong minority (30-40 percent) did not even have dedicated staff or roles in areas such as employee communications, media relations, and government relations.

Much of that changed as the pandemic took hold. Organizations struggled to add new communication technologies; redeploy staff; build dedicated communications teams; and hire new employees and consultants, all under duress. Did it work? It depends who you ask.

Leaders lavishly celebrated COVID-era communications measures. Almost all respondents described the initiatives as at least “fairly effective” and cited a variety of benefits, from high levels of employee engagement to more equitable distribution in the media. Where agencies or consultants were hired, about three quarters of executives rated this support as “important” or “very important”. Interestingly, “measuring the effectiveness” of communications was often cited as one of the challenges.

But what did employees and the public think?

Although not surveyed for this initiative, Proof’s 2022 CanTrust Index, produced in January, suggests that large companies in Canada remain distrusted, internally and externally, despite sustained, increased spending on communications over the past two years. Employees give their employers a “C” for building trust with external stakeholders, and less than half say they trust their managers. Only about a quarter of the total population trusts large organizations.

How can such opposing views be explained?

Our research suggests that while business leaders appreciate the value of communication, their struggle to measure their effectiveness drives them to look at results (eg, outputs, settings) as a proxy for results (eg, trust building). Similarly, the rapid hiring of communications staff and the perceived value of consultants signal that many executives view communications as the responsibility of others. Most tellingly, our survey shows that while most executives identify employees, government, and the media as “important” or “critical” stakeholders, less than 50% believe their organization’s leaders have the skills to engage to communicate effectively with these target groups.

The pandemic has put the spotlight on the importance of being willing to communicate. Professional communicators looking to maintain company support and realize the increased budgets promised by their executives should follow these five tips:

1. Use the many ways now available to accurately measure the effectiveness of communications activities. Relying on outcomes versus outcomes is a gamble, especially in a recession.

2. If your organization doesn’t have a crisis communication plan, create one. If it does, make sure it’s considering lengthy, dynamic situations. Test it annually.

3. Make your leaders understand the importance of clear and empathetic communication from above, especially in a crisis. Year after year, our CanTrust Index shows that leaders who communicate openly inspire trust. If training is required, conduct it.

4. Review and evaluate internal communication resources, including people and channels, and where external support is needed. Hiring during a crisis is like buying a fire extinguisher while your house is on fire.

5. Understand, measure and build trust. Make sure managers and leaders understand what trust means to your organization and what drives it among stakeholders. Conduct trust research annually and after each major crisis. Act quickly to fix vulnerabilities.

While we all prefer to think of the pandemic as a one-off event to be seen in the rear-view mirror, businesses today face disruptive forces such as natural disasters, trade wars, cybercrime, and consumer and worker activism. The next big crisis could be just around the corner. Be ready for it.

Josh Cobden is EVP at Proof Strategies.


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