By Anna Marie White, an instructor in the Public Relations diploma program
"WHAT TO DO IF A METEOR LANDS ON OUR BUILDING." Of all the emergency preparedness plans I have encountered, this one stands out as most memorable.
Organizations typically plan for economic downturns, security threats, maybe even human injury or loss of life. Although tragic, these are the familiar risks any public relations professional can imagine an organization might need to prepare for. Some of the not so familiar ones—projectiles from beyond earth's atmosphere or the current global pandemic—can prove more challenging to anticipate.
One of the key skills of successful public relations practitioners is to have something of a prescient ability to envision the future. Disciplined environment scanning is how we gather data about the external circumstances of the organization. That data informs the contextual intelligence that makes public relations professionals so vital to an organization; by identifying the risks and opportunities the organization may face and helping everyone to be prepared, it mitigates the risks and exploits the opportunities.
But very few - if any - PR pros had predicted a global pandemic with such wide ranging human and economic impact. I doubt even one had a pre-approved statement saved on an internal drive ready to shoot out to the media when the pandemic began to unfold in mid-March. Every leader I have worked alongside during the COVID-19 crisis, whether public relations professional or not, was taken by surprise.
As a firm believer in the vitality of learning organizations led by learning leaders, I like the adage that a mistake is a lesson we haven't yet learned. No matter the mess, there is always something to learn.
There are a few key lessons to take away from the COVID-19 crisis:
In times of uncertainty, human beings crave comfort: Would someone please take this uncomfortable feeling away? Increasing your frequency of communication helps to stabilize fears and shows a very human presence. When problems are too big for leaders to solve alone, presence is vital.
Remind your team, and yourself, that this is just right now. An organizational crisis—coupled with a wide-ranging societal crisis—can feel interminable. Adding two small words— right now—at the end of hard statements gives your team permission to struggle in the immediate circumstances but provides the optimism leaders must convey:
"Things are so crazy….right now."
"I'm really tired of this...right now."
"It feels like this will never end...right now."
The novel coronavirus has made this familiar adage more relevant than ever. This isn't a time to hunker down and wait out the storm. The world is changing and your organization needs your keen skills in contextual intelligence to help inform how it should adapt to the brave new world that lies ahead. Be ready to pivot quickly and look for ways to create a forward-focused 'new normal'.
Unlike a typical organizational crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is also a personal crisis for most employees; everyone faces some level of social isolation, cut off from creature comforts of dining out, recreation and visiting with friends and family. Employees working from home have faced the increased stress of caring for family members; those without that stress may work alone day after day. Watch for this perfect storm of circumstances to predictably increase tension and decrease creativity and collaboration within your team.
Your focus in the pandemic needs to be on successfully guiding your organization back to long-term health, even if that means you take a short-term productivity hit. As leader, you must balance short-term urgency against long-term direction, including maintaining staffing stability.
When it's business as usual, your staff members need to balance work and home life. The COVID-19 pandemic takes that one step further for most people who now have to blend work and home life. Be mindful of the enhanced need to care for people first.
Your humanity as a leader will become more exposed in a time of stress. Will you care more about tasks or people? The key word in our practice is relations. Relating is so much more than merely communicating.
Increase your care during a crisis. This can be as simple as remembering to check in more often with your staff to see how they are doing.
For your organization, public relations should be a way of running your organization so that when a crisis hits, you don't rely on pre-approved statements or a communication strategy to get you through. Your deeply embedded values, ethics, processes and culture all contribute to ensuring your organization not only survives but thrives through a crisis.
If you practice PR from the inside out, as a way of working and not just communicating, you can be ready for just about any crisis - even the ones no one imagined.