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The outbreak of pandemic in 2020 resulted in a global crisis.

According to the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT), as a result of the crisis, first of all, the reputation of the organization is at risk. In order to estimate the magnitude of the risk, it is important to understand the type of crisis we are dealing with, as well as consider the crisis history of the organization if any, and in case of presence of the latter, the reputation of the organization at the time of the crisis  

The crisis, as a concept, has numerous definitions presented in the scope of different theories and crisis management guidelines. Despite the variability in approaches, a crisis is perceived as an extraordinary situation characterized by being unexpected, providing very limited time for decision making, where the role of communications is essential. Regardless of the etiology and the scale, the various crises periodically occurring during the history of mankind, and particularly during the recent decades, have been proving this.

Studies conducted by the Institute for Crisis Management indicate that business crises are unexpected in 14% of cases; in the remaining 86% of cases, the business is aware of them to some extent. The predictable crises are known to be possible, but we don’t know whether they will happen and if so, where and when. To describe these kinds of situations Sam Black, one of the world’s first global practitioners (IPRA President,1982), has defined those as “known unknown” crises.

With regards to the global crisis caused by the pandemic, the business did not even assume that such a situation would occur, that is, we were dealing with an “unknown unknown”, and, in contrast to the previous global crises, it is a multifaceted and all-embracing. If we try to classify it by the flow dynamics, it is an unexpected one, which suddenly erupted demanding a pre-planned action plan, but it turned into an inescapable crisis, entering a dangerous and destructive phase.

Crisis communicationtools are universal, but in different countries, depending on the cultural context and mentality of the society, the organizations may react to the new reality in different ways and have their own vision of overcoming the challenges. Communication professionals were among the first ones to respond to the situation and started to search for new approaches, more effective ways and formats for communicating with the audience. And while the doctors around the world fight for the health of mankind in the frontlines, the communication professionals have the back ensuring the viability of organizations in times of crisis.
The three wise monkeys:see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

In this crisis, many organizations took up a strategy to build a defensive Chinese wall. They preferred to stay silent, not responding to the crisis in any way, to save financial and human resources, trying to overcome the situation with minimal losses.

It seems like “they dived underwater until the danger is over”. These organizations did not even take advantage of strengthening the trust with their audience, by being next to them in a difficult and unstable situation to provide support.

Such a strategy is not particularly purposeful for those organizations, which have been active in the past. Their long, inconceivable and unjustified silence could jeopardize their relations with both external and internal audiences.

Image is nothing, trust is everything

These organizations tried to be as flexible as Harry Houdini, not burning in the fire or drowning in water but “benefiting” from the situation in any way. However, their unprecedented activity was often criticized by the audience, who accused them of receiving dividends from and exploiting the topic. These organizations act less and talk more.

The negative reaction towards them is conditioned by the fact that the audience does not understand why the previously “often silent” brands “suddenly started talking” and “pulling the blanket over them”.

Just do it!

An “act more than talk” strategy has guided those organizations which have relevant activities and services, are able to meet the needs and expectations of their audience, but avoid communication due to a fear that they may be blamed for exploiting the crisis. These organizations, commonly, do not manage their communications themselves. However, there is a certain discourse around them, which is spontaneous, rather than guided.

As a result of this strategy, the audience may have a fragmented and, in some cases, even contradictory impression about the brand, based on indirectly generated third-hand information. Remarkably, in the case of organizations having a positive reputation at the time, despite their silence, their reputation “speaks” for them.

Your reputation is like a shadow that follows you wherever you go

There are organizations which have managed their communications on their own as much as they could. As a rule, their communications have been spontaneous and intuitive rather than strategic. They have always thought as if they don’t need additional professional guidance, since they know how to react in all situations.

During the crisis, as a result of their activities, they have been getting extensive feedback, which they didn’t have in the past. Taking advantage of the crisis, they became “superstars” very quickly, achieving a new level of reputation. Journalists responded to news from these organizations and coverage grew not because the media were interested in them per se (in the past they were largely indifferent) but because they became part of the coronavirus story as the state/government included them in their list of partners because there was a need for everyone to be involved.

Is this newly achieved reputation solid or fragile? Is it real or not? Will they be able to sustain that reputation? All of this largely depends on their post-crisis actions.

After the crisis we will find ourselves in a different reality. Some companies that have seen their reputations boosted in the short term will discover this to have been a temporary uplift, conditioned by the situation.

Impossible is nothing

In this crisis, many local companies show the power of a fast-transforming and flexible brand. This strategy requires creativity.

If successful, the brand promotes the formation of new habits in society and helps to adapt to the new reality. A clear example is the worldwide skyrocketing increase in the delivery services in various sectors and organizations, which was not considered a basic service in the past.

We are witnessing how professional and business meetings, exhibitions and so on are moving online. How many museums have created online spaces and virtual rooms to display their exhibits? The list of innovative changes goes on.

Sharing is caring

Organizations that care for and listen to the needs of their public, follow and support them in a changing context and create comfort become leaders. Their public is continuously informed and confident that the organizations are in control of the situation and have plans to urgently respond to it.

Very often the organizations focus on primary vulnerable groups: the isolated, the infected, physicians. But everyone needs to be taken care of since this crisis was inherently a threat to all sectors of society.

Brands with well-established corporate social responsibility policies, which implement various programs in different areas in response to the needs of the audience, have increased the “share of care”, expanding the directions of their programs and the scope of beneficiaries.

Of course, the crisis has seen the onset of tough work. Many hard challenges are yet to come.

Organizations need not only to assess the course of the crisis, but also to think about their position after the crisis by conducting surveys on public opinion, social perceptions and behavioural changes. It is crucial to recognize that the crisis is a new stage of development and realize that the new world is full of new opportunities.
The last 100 years have been full of various crises, and what are the lessons learned?
•   Have an anti-crisis strategy․ We recognize that each crisis has its own unique features, but we should have a universal conceptual approach to responding to crisis situations, with back-up scenarios and possible risk-estimations in decision-making, to be flexible but principled, to imagine what, how, when.

•   Time is crucial factor: If at first glance PR communication is a set of technologies or actions, in terms of content, it is a chain of decision making. Therefore, if the necessary decision on communication is not made right on time, it will not be possible to get the right moment back in the futureanymore. We just have to accept the “golden rule” of acting in crisis: to be on time does not mean to hurry, and the ideal is the decision made on time.

•   Ethical communications. In this crisis, the isolated audience is in an uncontrollable state of anxiety and fear, becoming very fragile, sensitive, depending on the flow of information, requiring exquisite, discreet, ethical and caring communication.These days, any decision or action of the organization should be communicated, as it can directly lead to a change in the lifestyle of the various target groups of the organization. And sooner or later the audience will expect the justification of those decisions, whether it is a temporary termination of the organization’s activities or the start of radically different, new directions of activities.

•   Take the initiative. Become a primary and reliable source of information, create an information center and make official announcements on a regular basis. Taking the initiative of communication, the company can also take control of the situation. The source of information can be the personal pages of individual businessmen, leaders, the social network pages of organizations, websites, where the appeared information is also actively disseminated and reprinted. Do not hide the facts and do not confuse the public. The truth will sooner or later come to light. The controversial moments are also interesting to the public.

•   Personalized communication and immediacy are in high demand. Personality based brands are more convincing. The society is looking for heroes, the time has come for new ones.

•   Be open to collaboration. Work in all directions; engage experts in the field, opinionleaders, influencers, competitors in communication. Competition is secondary, in this crisis, the former rivals, are supporters who speak out for the protection of their rights and issues in their field; try to find solutions to problems together and discover new opportunities. During the crisis, those companies are strong, which, in addition to their economic activities, build firm relationships with all the stakeholders – the state, the government, customers, partners, media, employees.  

•   The staff should be informed first.The reputation may receive the first blow from ignoring the inner audience. In uncertain situations, the silence and indifference of the organization creates an abyss between itself and its internal audience, crushing the team spirit. The company should be caring for the team and continuously inform them about the company’s activities.

Of course, the crisis is the onset of tough work, the hard is yet to come. The organizations not only need to assess the course of the crisis, but they also need to think about the company’s position after the crisis, conducting surveys on public opinion, social perceptions and behavioural changes, and developing new strategies based on them, since the previous ones will not be appropriate anymore. It is crucial to recognize that the crisis is a new stage of development and realize that the new world is full of new opportunities. And as US President John F. Kennedy noted in his speeches in 1959 and 1960 “In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.”