Battle Tested in 2020: Harvard School of Business Researchers’ Four Considerations for Your 2021 Crisis Plan
- Posted by Megan Paquin
- On December 16, 2020
- crisis, crisis communications
The recent rollout of a coronavirus vaccine is welcome news, even with the caveat that widespread distribution will take some time. For business leaders who have spent many months in crisis-mode, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. But there is still work left to do.
When crises are sustained over a long period of time, it is not uncommon and certainly understandable that leaders can become burnt out or over-assimilate themselves and overlook the detrimental effects of compounding challenges or, perhaps worse, cling to false hope. To overcome what remains of the COVID-19 crisis, business leaders will need to remain engaged and increase communications efforts to ensure their employees and other stakeholders not only withstand the next few months, but also emerge stronger as we work to rebuild our society.
Through our plan, respond, advocate model, we encourage business leaders and their legal counsel to consider crisis communication as a sequence. Authors from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Business emphasized this point in an article published back in April, which encouraged leaders to view each message communicated over time “as part of a larger fabric or pattern.”
This means being proactive rather than reactive. Taking a renewed look at organizational vulnerabilities through a risk assessment can help maintain focus on where your organization currently stands, and what could impact future success. Doing so often inspires critical action and can also serve as a starting point for developing credible and consistent communications.
In their article, the Harvard authors drew on the Stockdale Paradox named after Admiral James Stockdale, the senior American officer incarcerated in North Vietnam POW camps. He was responsible for and credited with helping many of his fellow inmates survive in the direst of circumstances. Stockdale said leaders must do two things: 1) they must be brutally honest about the reality and 2) they must offer a rational basis for hope.
Therefore, leaders should be measured in their celebration of announcements like a forthcoming vaccine. It is a good idea to express hope but not to speculate, make predictions or suggest control over the future. Instead, the Harvard authors state—and we agree—that leaders should aim to offer your stakeholders answers to these questions as the crisis evolves:
- What is going on?
- To whom is this happening?
- Why should we care?
- What should people similar to us, with values like ours, do in a situation like this?
Apply these questions to each risk in your risk assessment and draft responses, turning those notes into templated communications for use if and when circumstances require. This will be your starting point in a crisis, and you can plug and drop in essential information based on the issue. These templates ensure you aren’t starting from square one every time and will give you the confidence you need to communicate effectively.
While there is hope on the horizon, we aren’t out of the woods yet. Remaining vigilant and focused on crisis communications best practices will strengthen your organization’s resolve and solidify relationships with key stakeholders through the ongoing crisis.
Megan Paquin is vice president at Poston Communications and leads the crisis and litigation PR team. She has been trusted to lead communications strategies for some of the world’s most respected brands. As a communicator, Megan thrives in complex, high-stakes situations and her counsel has proven essential to bolster the reputations of her clients.