No, I’m not an overseer. But as we hammer away at plans to relaunch our businesses and make up for lost time, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the pandemic will not be the end point of the communicator’s burden. Anticipation will help us spend time on prevention, and if something cannot be prevented, we can at least prepare to face the problem better equipped and trained.
The big waves come in a series of three. Therefore, I think we should be prepared for a succession of three types of corporate crises:
The first will be corporate scandals. Last week, The Economist gracefully said that you only find out who is swimming without a swimsuit in the pool when the water level drops. This is what will probably happen in the coming months: the embarrassment of some companies will come to light, because the scarcity of financing or liquidity will leave problems that were hidden by general abundance.
This forecast is based on experience: the big bumps from industrial giants and large financial institutions often happen in times of widespread economic crises. This is what happened with Enron, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Madoff, Caja Madrid, etc. The crisis hurt everyone, but those who were in an unstable balance due to risky or even directly fraudulent practices were knocked down.
It could be like a domino. The first one will appear thanks to the investigative work of some journalist, or to the leak of some manager angry for having lost his job in a bad way, or simply by pure chance. But as soon as that case hits the front pages, the other media and all the social watchdogs (police, supervisory and control bodies, activist groups) will smell the blood and dig up bodies that seemed destined to be forgotten.
Experience shows the effectiveness of what is often called stealing thunder. Most likely, the first to know about these vulnerabilities will be the members of the executive committee. In this area, we communicators must remember a fact that has often been observed: organizations that make an internal problem known before it is discovered by the media or other stakeholders strengthen their credibility, and their decisions are better received than apologies when the facts are already known. There is life after a voluntary and timely request for forgiveness, but there is no life when it is late and forced.
If that line of action is not accepted because it is reckless (I think the reckless thing to do is to lose the initiative), at least the response could be prepared to be ready as soon as it is made public. It’s not as good, but it’s better than having to improvise.
The second will be the crises caused by bad responses to the coronavirus. The situation is so serious that it is not surprising that some executive committees are discussing whether to “take shortcuts” around the crisis, and take actions that border on the illegitimate and improper, or even cross the line of illegality.
Either because it is always like this, or because they have gone up to the bellhop’s room for COVID-19, the active presence of communicators in the executive committee will help them to exercise conscience of the organization, as well as to ally themselves with those who agree that the important thing is to manage for the long term, taking into account that you can fool a few for a little while, but today it is impossible to fool everyone all the time. Cheating is always a voluntary mistake, in the face of which the public is much less understanding than in the face of an involuntary or weak mistake.
And if not even then, then the crisis plan with its scenarios must also be prepared in advance. This would be the way to fulfill the three requirements of the corporate communicator: science, experience and conscience.
Finally, I foresee that at the end of the happy de-escalation there will be more crises than before, motivated by the rarefied social climate. During the risk, the main feeling is fear and uncertainty, and we look first for a source of certainty. This is what is seen in cases of risk generation by companies, and it is likely that something similar will happen with the pandemic.
In local communities that are mobilizing against polluting and toxic industries, research is initially conducted on the reality of these health hazards, opinion is sought from doctors, scientists and other experts, and anxiety and fear predominate. But that phase is followed by another: many people move from fear to anger, or to a certain calm “on the move”: they overcome their fear by taking an active stance, that they are at least fighting against it.
As Herbert says, “We are in the middle of the risk period, but that is not going to last forever. The contradictions of authorities and companies may now be overlooked in the perception of many, but there will be retrospective evaluations, and there will be an increase in public dispute and appeals to the courts. In other words, we are now suspending the doubt because we do not know which way to run, but once we feel safe again, many will start to doubt whether it was a big deal, whether it was reasonable given all the contradictions, etc. And the blame game will begin: the hunt for the one considered guilty and even the one who was lukewarm.
It will be a difficult moment, almost unprecedented, because everything will be doubted. This crisis has brought back to the table that science is not safe, that experts contradict each other, that contradictory positions can be defended by appealing to apparently scientific data, and that media experts (sometimes not very serious, or sometimes very successful because they are good communicators) are swarming.
And what about social networks? Worse. It has become a parallel court to the law, where the one who shouts the loudest, with the most bots, wins. Many times it replaces the jury with the masses who want to lynch. He forgets that more than a century ago the infamous penalties were eliminated not because they were useless, but because they were brutal, and he practices ignominy and civil death.
In that context, communicative activity in networks has to be more prudent than ever, monitor carefully, respond with serenity and extinguish the sparks before they ignite. More preparation is needed.
In short, more conflict not only of interests (which I solve by negotiating), but of principles and values, which lead to the radical rejection of the opposite position. In this polarized environment, mine and yours, corporate communicators are going to have to calm down, use a tone and language that favors social cohesion, and promote attractive goals for all of society. Here too, overcoming political and social polarization is more in the hands of corporations than in the institutions of the State, from which sadly little can be expected at this time.
To ride out these three waves, we will need preparation, programming and training. Crises are times to invest more in communication: more time from the bosses, more internal and external resources in planning, in knowing our priority audiences, in talking to them. In January we didn’t take seriously a virus that looked like the flu, but today we have no excuse.
Professor at IESE Business School and Director of Crisis Communication at PROA Comunicación