These are confusing and worrisome times. Just imagine a small business—any business for that matter—facing canceled orders, pressing payroll, and an idle workforce. The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to review every facet of how we live our lives.
Jonathan Bernstein admits that he has never seen anything quite like this. For nearly the past 30 years, his crisis management firm, Bernstein Crisis Management, has come across myriad instances where highly effective strategies were needed to calm and manage a situation.
“In my 35 years of experience, 95% of the crises we have responded to have been, in the wisdom of hindsight, completely preventable,” says Bernstein, chairman and founder.
Bernstein says one of the key takeaways from this challenge is that business leaders must have crisis management strategies in place to manage both their operations and reputations when things go awry. The plan must include the activation of triage on the business in the moment and proactive brand strategies to maintain connection.
When a crisis like COVID-19 hits, the key is to remain calm in the storm. It is a strategy that Bo Bothe says could serve every leader well. “Having gone through three major economic shocks in our business, we’ve gotten to the point where we look at everything right away: debt, client health, AR, AP, ratios, etc.,” says Bothe, CEO of Brand Extract. “Then we look at overhead and staff.”
The key is to use your strategy and vision to make calls after you review what is happening. What can you cut that will not impact your core competency? What do you have to hang on to at all costs? What is a waste or problem that needs to be corrected? What have you been kicking down the road? “The intent isn’t to overreact, but to find a way to do more than survive in a crisis,” Bothe says.
SETTING YOUR BEARINGS
Once you get your bearings, the next step should always be a personal recommitment to all of the people who have been affected—the team who will be navigating the crisis, and those within the business and community.
Doing the right thing is critical and the crisis will put your values to the test. “You have to be honest with everyone about what’s going on,” Bothe says. “That doesn’t mean you scare them, but you have to put enough out there so that they all understand the gravity of the situation. Being honest makes it easier on the leadership team that may have to do some harsh things and the employees and customers who can at least prepare.”
In his book, “What You Do Is Who You Are,” Ben Horowitz says that leadership has to come from the front. In crazy times, leadership has to make good decisions and mirror the way you want your team to act. Panic begets panic, calm begets calm, and passive begets passive.
“You need to provide hope and belief, but you can’t provide false hope or belief,” Bothe says. “You can benefit from making hard decisions quickly here as well. Being clear about your intentions, honest and open about what you’re doing, humble about how you do it, and swift to act makes things so much better in the long run.”
If you want to know the best way to act in a crisis, Zdenek Kratky offers this advice: Communicate and develop your contingency plans up front, and plan for the worst-case scenarios so you may always understand how you might fail—then you are more likely to succeed.
“As you drill down, you must manage cash flow, commit to listening to your employees, connect with customers as much as possible, and benchmark your plan with other industries,” says Kratky, VP of Marketing for Sigura Water.
While it may seem difficult to communicate in unpredictable situations, building trust still matters. Even amid the shared pain and anxiety we have about the future, Kratky believes that focusing on trust is always the best path forward. “Building trust shows commitment, care, and empathy.”
THE COMMUNICATION FACTOR
Above all else, communication is the key component. Are you reaching out to employees on a one-on-one basis to alleviate their concerns? Are you addressing their situations? Are they aware of the resources available to them? Are you communicating openly and successfully with your “decision influencers”?
In such trying and unprecedented times, some of the best actions rest in the character of leaders. “You need to make well-thought-out, quick decisions with compassion and honesty,” Bothe says. “There are things you should share with your team and other things you shouldn’t. Honesty and direct communication doesn’t mean saying everything.”
Having seen the toll that crises can take on people and brands, Bothe says that the reality of the situation is that the path out is yours to chart. “Sometimes, that’s something small, and sometimes it’s a wholesale change. But your people are looking to you to lead, and in times like this, quick, honest, and clear decisions are what they are looking for.”
All crisis management-related plans moving forward should have a very clear set of procedures outlined for each member of your crisis management team, both in operations and communications. There is no set playbook. Procedures must be customized to each client’s needs.
The metrics and crisis team you employ to guide your business must be executed quickly. Sigura Water has formed a task force that includes leaders from all businesses and functions. It has also created an extended work group of internal experts. “Core task forces meet daily and the extended group meets twice per week,” Kratky says. “We are keeping safety as the first priority, and then financial and other considerations can be managed once the safety of employees is ensured.”
THE LIGHT AHEAD
Consumers—your customers— look to a brand for information. They want to trust that you will be there to support them during good and bad times. Bothe says that being proactive, transparent and honest is a significant driver of loyalty. “People will forgive and help those who treat them with integrity and purvey honest information, not selling gimmicks during times of crisis management.”
Consistency matters—it matters in the moment and it matters in the future. Brands must be consistent with their mission, vision, and values. Kratky stresses that panic is not an option. Your audience is looking to you for confidence.
But you cannot act like nothing is wrong either.
“You need to do things that are appropriate for the time,” Kratky says. “For example, you might be worried about new business, but in this current environment, someone calling to sign you up for a new service or sell you something that isn’t essential seems a little tone-deaf. You have to stick to what you’ve always been, that’s hard in times like these.”
The crisis is real. It has been painful. But through thoughtful planning, sincere communication and a commitment to branding, we can start to see the light in the distance. Real opportunity is born from moments of crisis.