The illusion of preparedness in crisis communications

Josh Cobden, EVP at Proof Strategies, dives into differing perceptions between the public and business leaders.

By Josh Cobden

Stay-at-home orders. Shuttered offices and schools. Scarcity of goods. Closed borders. Sound familiar? In fact, these terms are all pulled from World War II news reports. But you can be forgiven for associating them with COVID-19, 80 years later, because for many of us, its onset was an unprecedented crisis.

This presented a unique opportunity to explore how prepared organizations were when the pandemic was declared in March 2020. 

To do this, we surveyed more than 100 executives in Canada and the U.S. running large companies with 500 to 10,000 employees. We interviewed a smaller group to add further context.

The research surfaced three themes: an “illusion of preparedness”; a wave of PR panic-buying; and a view among many leaders that communications is someone else’s responsibility. While nine out of 10 leaders told us they will increase their investment in communications post-pandemic (more than one-third say “significantly”), how they perform in the next crisis will depend on where they spend it and their commitment to building trust. 

But first, let’s go back in time.

When asked to recall how prepared their organizations were for the communications challenges of the pandemic, fully 80% of leaders said they were “prepared” or “very well prepared.” However, further questioning reveals that fewer than half had crisis communications plans, trained spokespersons, crisis simulations or sufficient communications channels in place when COVID-19 began. A strong minority (30-40 per cent) did not even have dedicated staff or functions in areas such as employee communications, media relations and government relations.

Much of this changed when the pandemic took hold. Organizations scrambled to add new communications technologies; re-deploy staff; create dedicated communications teams; and hire new employees and consultants, all under duress. Did it work? It depends on whom you ask.

Leaders celebrated COVID-era communications measures effusively. Almost everyone surveyed described the initiatives as at least “somewhat effective,”  and they cited a variety of benefits from high employee engagement to getting a fairer shake in the media. Where agencies or consultants were hired, roughly three quarters of leaders described this support as “important” or “very important.” Interestingly, “measuring effectiveness” of communications measures was commonly cited as one of the challenges.

But what did employees and the public think?

While they weren’t surveyed for this initiative, Proof’s 2022 CanTrust Index, fielded in January, suggests that despite sustained, elevated spending on communications for two years, large businesses in Canada remain mistrusted, inside and out. Employees assign their employers a grade of “C” when it comes to building trust with external stakeholders, and fewer than half say they trust their managers. Only about one quarter of the total public trust large organizations. 

How to explain such opposing views?

Our research suggests that while business leaders appreciate the value of communications, their struggle to measure its effectiveness is leading them to view outputs (e.g., spending, hiring) as a proxy for outcomes (e.g., trust building). Similarly, the rapid hiring of communications staff and perceived value of consultants signals that many leaders view communications as someone else’s responsibility. Most telling, our survey reveals that while most leaders describe employees, government and the media as “important” or “critical” stakeholders, fewer than 50% feel their organization’s leaders have the skills to effectively communicate with these audiences.

The pandemic shone a spotlight on the importance of communications preparedness. Professional communicators who want to maintain corporate support and realize the increased budgets promised by their leaders should follow these five tips:

1. Take advantage of the many ways now available to measure the effectiveness of communications activities with precision. Relying on outputs versus outcomes is a gamble, especially in a recession.

2. If your organization doesn’t have a crisis communications plan, create one. If it does, ensure it contemplates protracted, dynamic situations. Test it annually.

3. Impress upon your leaders the critical importance of clear and empathetic communications from the top, particularly in a crisis. Year after year, our CanTrust Index reveals that leaders who communicate openly drive trust. If training is required, make it happen.

4. Audit and evaluate in-house communications resources, including people and channels, and where external support is needed. Hiring during a crisis is like shopping for a fire extinguisher while your house burns.

5. Understand, measure and build trust. Ensure managers and leaders understand what trust means in your organization and what drives it among stakeholders. Conduct trust research annually and after any major crisis. Act swiftly to address weaknesses.

While we all might prefer to view the pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime event that’s in the rear-view mirror, disruptive forces such as natural disasters, trade wars, cybercrime and consumer and employee activism are confronting business today. The next big crisis could be just around the corner. Be ready for it.

Josh Cobden is EVP at Proof Strategies.