Looking ahead to a second pandemic wave: why acting now to strengthen your crisis management capability is the key to building future resilience

Published: Thursday, 14 May 2020 08:15

As many countries seem to be emerging from the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis, now is the time to plan for a possible second wave says Jonathan Hemus.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on many businesses. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, almost a quarter (24 percent) of UK businesses have temporarily closed or paused trading since the start of the outbreak. Alongside that, falling stock prices, disrupted supply chains and a world in lockdown has left many of those still standing in significantly weakened positions where they are even more vulnerable to risk.

In anticipation of a second wave of the pandemic, or an unrelated crisis such as a cyber attack, it is vital that businesses act now if they are to ensure their long-term survival. This means learning from their response to COVID-19, evaluating the new risk landscape, and ensuring that their crisis plans meet the current threat level. Not to do so risks further – potentially terminal – harm.

The value of planning

Leadership teams who previously had insufficient time in their busy schedules to dedicate to crisis planning have experienced first-hand the damage a crisis can do if you are unprepared.

In contrast I have seen how organizations who had planned, trained, and exercised beforehand have responded better and consequently suffered less.

For example, while some businesses remained in denial for weeks, if not months, one of our clients who recognised the value of crisis planning seized the opportunity to set the agenda and get ahead of the impending crisis.

Guided by a pre-prepared pandemic plan, they began scenario planning the potential impacts of COVID-19 on their business as soon as news of the disease emerged from China. Consequently, when lockdown hit, they had already implemented a global travel ban for staff, explored contingencies for home working and taken steps to shut down non-essential operations, all actions which enabled them to exert influence over the crisis and protect their stakeholders’ lives and livelihoods.

Similarly, Dave Lewis, the CEO of Tesco, has stated that a crisis plan resulting from a ‘doomsday’ exercise run four years ago has been instrumental in helping his business overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19. 

But for every business that has thought ahead, there are countless others who have entered this crisis blind. Some have lost the trust and confidence of stakeholders after communication failed to hit the mark or was delivered too late. Others have fallen prey to poor decision making and duplication of effort due to the lack of a pre-agreed crisis management framework.

Building future resilience

So, what can businesses do now to ensure they successfully navigate the uncharted waters they are currently operating in and emerge stronger and healthier?

A critical first step to building future resilience is a structured review of your pandemic response. By identifying gaps and flaws within it you create a platform you can build on, enabling you to address key issues and emerge better placed to respond when the next crisis hits. A review also ensures you capture and repeat the actions which were particularly effective.

The review should involve anyone who played a key role in your crisis response. It should be transparent and constructive, with the emphasis on learning, not blame.

Start by reminding everyone of your COVID-19 crisis management objectives. What did you want to achieve? What was your end goal? Next consider how your crisis response played out against these. What was the variance between your objectives and what happened in practice? Take time to explore what worked well and what failed to hit the mark. Why was that? Be honest in your evaluation and ensure you capture actions and allocate responsibility for implementing them.

Evaluating the new risk landscape

COVID-19 has dramatically transformed the risk landscape, creating new threats and challenges which could bring an already weakened business to its knees. In fact, research carried out by Insignia at the start of May revealed that 62 percent of businesses feel they are now more vulnerable to the impact of a crisis than before COVID-19. Consequently, it is vital that businesses re-evaluate their critical risks against the backdrop of the pandemic to establish where their greatest vulnerabilities lie now.

A current COVID-19 risk assessment will enable businesses to identify and prioritise the new risks that threaten their organization, whether financial, operational, reputational or people related. It will also clarify strategies for reducing their likelihood and/or impact, enabling senior leaders to drive out an action plan to address future challenges.

Creating robust crisis plans and procedures

According to PwC’s 2019 Global Crisis Survey, by a margin of nearly 2:1 (54 percent vs 30 percent), organizations that had a crisis response plan in place fared better post-crisis than those who did not. Equally, those that kept their crisis plan up to date and implemented the lessons learned were four times more likely to come out on top.

These statistics have been underlined by what Insignia has seen in the current pandemic. Businesses without a crisis management plan have struggled to exert any influence over their COVID-19 response. Conversely those that did have plans in place have done far better, although most would admit the virus has pushed their plans to the limit - only 30 percent of businesses Insignia contacted as part of a recent survey said their plans had worked extremely well in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

For their long-term viability, it is essential that businesses update existing crisis management plans now to ensure they can cope with the next crisis in whatever form it emerges. In anticipation of a second wave of the pandemic, this also means including a dedicated pandemic section to avoid any future missteps.

For those organizations without a crisis management plan, now is the time to create one. They must use the short window of opportunity between the first outbreak and the predicted second wave to develop a robust set of procedures and template materials which are clear and simple to execute.

Whether you are creating a plan from scratch or updating an existing version, it is vital to brief your team on the new procedures so they can deploy them effectively under pressure. Make sure they are clear on what they need to do and how they need to do it. If you don’t, you risk costly mistakes which could impact your ability to retain the trust and confidence of your stakeholders when the next crisis hits.

COVID-19 is the biggest crisis management wake-up call the world has ever seen. But out of crisis comes opportunity. If businesses heed the lessons they have learned so far and adapt their crisis response capability accordingly, they have a much better chance of successfully overcoming the challenges ahead.

The author

Jonathan Hemus is managing director of Insignia, a specialist crisis management consultancy which works with leaders of businesses around the world to protect value and reputation when crisis strikes. Contact him at j.hemus@insigniacrisis.com

COVID-19 survey