Over the last week, we have seen a swing in news focus with COVID-19: from a heavy emphasis on spread/treatment of the disease and reporting tragic statistics to the political failings in the management of the crisis, to ‘exit’ strategies and relaxation of lockdown measures. And there is 99-year-old WW2 veteran Captain Tom. What was originally a local fundraising story from Yorkshire has snowballed into a global phenomenon, raising over £27million for the NHS Charities Trust and still rising.
While organisations and individuals look at re-grouping and adapting to the new normal, plenty of advice is also emerging on how to manage the next steps of the crisis and eventual recovery. I have noticed that good old military crisis management frameworks and language are beginning to feature. For example, crisis management teams are now operating in SITCENs, Nerve Centres or War Rooms.
Given most global leaders are naming or alluding to COVID-19 as the enemy, or being on a war footing, it is hardly surprising that the corporate world is looking to military models for inspiration. However, unlike previous crisis models (with the exception of 9/11), wherever you are in the world, transitioning to what we hope will resemble regular business operations will be a long haul.
For this current crisis, I’ve drawn on my NATO peacekeeping experience in Bosnia, which had a long and painful journey to their new normal following the 1992 – 1995 civil conflict. Here are my key takeaways for anyone thrust into the eye of the storm: leading and managing the strategic and operational elements of the crisis to ensure short-term survival and longer-term success:
Review and rotate
Regularly reviewing all risks and variables impacting your organisations is critical, due to the unpredictable and often fast-moving pace of the coronavirus spread; its subsequent impact on those developing and succumbing to COVID-19; the regular political decision making; and the far-reaching economic impact of prolonged lockdowns and travel restrictions.
If not already in place, formalise a data-gathering and analysis team: in the military this is simply operational reporting and intelligence gathering. As well as internal operational information, this data includes news reports, social media listening, fake news, and general political commentary. It is vital to get a full picture to assist the leadership in their decision making. Review and report this in your planning and leadership meetings, pulling out the priorities. A good Crisis Management Team (CMT) will already be doing this, but if you are not, please do.
The other important point to note is that in any military operation, there is a rotation system. We can have all the drive, stamina and endurance that is humanly possible, but with a long-haul task, it is important to give some respite to those who are working long, stressful and challenging days. A simple rotation system works. If a CMT is being stood up for a number of months, consider appointing two people to one role, transitioning the replacement through a week or two of understudy/handover. It is also critical in a pandemic to have a fully briefed ‘reserve’ in place. If you need a case study, look no further than the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The other factors to consider about having a dual-appointed role are that it builds skills, competence and institutional knowledge of how the crisis is being managed; and gives the incumbents some time to catch up on their regular work during their ‘out’ rotation periods.
Adapt and communicate
This pandemic is making us all adapt in different ways: from the way we live to the way we are working. The digital revolution has seen a huge leap forward as we have all adapted to the way we communicate. Communicating in a crisis is critical: we all know this, as everyone seeks information to make decisions, personal or business.
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 Special Report: Trust and the Coronavirus, after health authorities, employers are most trusted to respond effectively to the coronavirus outbreak. This is a great endorsement of organisations quickly adapting in a very short space of time earlier this year, but this is just the first stage of response.
Adaption will continue as we all adjust and continue to function in these extraordinary times. As long as this continues, so too will unease and anxiety. This is why communication and engagement during a crisis are key – and on several levels:
- Internal communications: to maintain employee trust, engagement and motivation. In the military this is simply “Command Communications”. With guidance from the leadership, all relevant information is delivered at operational, divisional and executive level, and engagement encouraged to keep up morale and motivation of those in the front line.
- Corporate communications: for full transparency, trust and information flow. Contingent on the country, this is generally referred to as straightforward Media Operations (UK) or Public Affairs (USA). Classic media relations and press office activities fall under this and was viewed by the Bosnian population as the most trusted authoritative source of information. Social media listening and responding will vary according to each internal structure, but whoever manages this must be aligned to corporate communications narrative and messaging.
- Marketing communications: Yes, the military engage in paid marketing in times of crisis. In the Bosnian NATO/SFOR peacekeeping operation, this came under Psychological Operations (USA) and was vital in reinforcing the benefits of peace. Its definition, according to Wikipedia
“Psychological operations (PSYOPS) are operations to convey selected information and indicators to audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour of governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.”
Today, in the UK this activity is included under 77 Brigade, whose aim is:
“…through targeted Information Activity and Outreach we contribute to the success of military objectives in support of Commanders, whilst reducing the cost in casualties and resources.”
Digital communications are now at the forefront of marketing. However tight finances may be, cutting back on marketing during a crisis – either traditional or digital – will simply mean you won’t be heard at a time when you most need to be.
These three communication disciplines help underpin the crisis management efforts and ensure the strategic intent and end state (more military terms) have the greatest chance of being achieved.
Mitigate and plan
Forward planning is equally critical in crisis management. While the main engine room in a crisis is the CMT activities and decision making, planning for the future must not be overlooked or side-lined at any time, no matter what the present challenges and efforts are. Why?
Planning and preparation underpin all successful military operations. In the UK military, the department is simply “Plans”. It also covers strategy and policy, developing, proposing and running with information. This applies to before and during a crisis, using current information from all operational departments as well as leadership direction. With this information, all planned tasks and risks are identified and prioritised according to impact on operations. Strategists, risk managers, communicators and policymakers are at the forefront of successful military planning, augmented by legal and political advisors (LEGAD and POLAD).
In the COVID-19 context, quite simply, if you are too busy managing today, the uncertainty of tomorrow will linger indeterminately, and you are at higher risk of not adapting to future challenges, trends or opportunities. This view is also echoed amongst senior communicators and practitioners I know. Rebecca Zeitlin, Head of Communications and External Affairs at aviation tech innovators Hybrid Air Vehicles perfectly articulated the importance of planning:
“Those businesses that will come out of this crisis and thrive will be those that are now planning for the future, not the now.”
And finally, if you are feeling a bit lost amongst managing the crisis now and planning for the future, just remember Captain Tom’s words:
“For all those finding it difficult: the sun will shine on you again and the clouds will go away.”
Captain Tom’s fundraising page:
Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 Special Report: Trust and the Coronavirus
Additional reading on COVID-19 crisis management from the big consultancies: