Pandemic lessons for crisis management

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations is currently revising its training material for online delivery and crisis management is one of the first topics to get this attention.

This is a good opportunity to consider experience in managing response to the Covid-19 pandemic as an example of crisis management in action.

The Covid-19 pandemic is often described as a crisis, but strictly speaking the pandemic itself is a natural disaster, which like many others, can be predicted and anticipated.  President Obama is on record predicting a potential pandemic similar to Covid-19 in 2014, in the ‘next five or ten years or so.’

Disasters can be studied and their likely course simulated and lessons drawn for planning purposes.  Scottish and UK governments ran exercises to assess readiness to respond to pandemics – in 2016 and 2018 – and it’s now a matter of controversy as to why steps were not taken to address gaps in preparation which emerged from these.

Experience in dealing with previous disasters also feeds into planning for future events.

Governments in SE Asia drew on successful containment of SARS in 2002 – 2004 to inform their approaches to the management of Covid-19, and the World Health Organisation learnt from the Ebola outbreak in 2013 to 2016 in West Africa.

In fact, the natural disaster which is the Covid-19 pandemic has become a crisis for a number of countries and governments around the world as a result of their approach to its management.

Crises are extreme situations recognisable through the presence of a number of important features.  They involve:

  • A high level of threat (to life, property, the existence of the organisation caught up in the situation)
  • Surprise – the situation, although predictable in some form, is unexpected, and decision-makers are often in the wrong place to deal with it, or have failed to pay sufficient attention to early signs of the developing situation
  • Stress – decision-makers are uncertain as to how to deal with the situation and feel a high degree of stress because of the threat involved and
  • Time pressure – steps have to be taken to deal with the threat as quickly as possible to limit loss of life, damage and threat to the organisation’s interests

Writers on crisis situations, such as Otto Lerbinger, see crises as emerging out of natural and biological disasters, technological malfunction, confrontation, malevolence, deception and management failure.

Leadership or management failure – the failure to follow through on clear responsibilities – can give rise to crises for the countries organisations led or managed.

While hindsight is easy to apply, national responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have pushed the disaster towards crisis through:

  • Hesitation to take the threat of the virus seriously early enough
  • Choice of inappropriate responses to the developing threat
  • Distraction or inattention on the part of leaders
  • Reluctance to take essential decisions
  • Reliance on plans no longer fit for purpose and untested assumptions (for example, that just-in-time provision of equipment necessary to deal with the pandemic would work  in face of international competition for the same supplies)

Crisis management is often conceived as falling into three phases:  crisis planning, the management of the crisis situation as it occurs, and management of the aftermath of crisis.

In countries such as the UK and the US, we are now in the second phase of managing the crisis that the Covid-19 pandemic has become – playing catch up as a result of limitations in planning and laying by reserves to deal with the situation as  it has developed.

Managing the aftermath of the crisis will require enormous effort, to restore public health, rebuild economies and address deep-seated social problems brought to the surface by the pandemic.

In a number of countries, steps will have to be taken to restore public trust in government, diminished by the approaches that have to been taken to management of the pandemic.

This, management of response to the pandemic, will have to be studied in detail, so that arrangements for future management of such threats to public health can be put in place to work quickly and effectively in any next time – which will come.

Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

Dr Jon White, FCIPR, is a consultant and visiting professor at Henley Business School and Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC).

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