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Crises Are Inevitable but Learning Isn’t

June 11, 2020

Critical takeaways:

  • Crises are inevitable, but it takes effort to learn from them and apply them to the next crisis.
  • Create an inventory of all the decisions, policy changes and communications from the past three months, and evaluate the successes and misses.
  • Schedule a table-top simulation for some other risk your organization faces while you’re still on war footing.

Crises are inevitable, but learning from them is not. Even a global pandemic that shuts down most of the world’s economies is inevitable. Crises have happened before, and they’ll happen again. Sometimes they happen to you, sometimes to a competitor and sometimes to someone in a completely different space. Sometimes they happen to everyone. We should learn from each one so we’re better at responding to the next one.

But the learning has to be intentional. It isn’t a given that we actually will learn something and make changes so we’re better the next time. We can easily just stumble from one crisis to another, relying on our sometimes faulty muscle memory to guide us through each one. We can easily get caught up in the next thing that needs our attention and not reflect on what we’ve just been through and how we could have done it better.

Most of us are in varying states of returning to some form of “normal operations.” While the COVID-19 pandemic will not be in the rearview mirror for some time, we find ourselves driving alongside it, our eyes focused on the road ahead and any obstacles in our lane. Do not let this opportunity to grow, transform and change behaviors pass. 

Remember What You Did

As communicators, we are acutely aware of the importance of reputation and crisis. The C-suite is typically only aware of it when something bad is happening. How do keep them from losing sight of that once things go back to normal? How can we keep it top of mind?

First of all, memorialize the decisions and the events of the past three months. Create a robust timeline. I know it sounds very pedestrian, but I really think there’s huge value in memorializing the decisions that you made and how you communicated them. If you weren’t logging them in real time, create one after the fact. Only by doing this will you see the successes and the misses. 

Because six months from now, a year from now, all of this will be a blur. We may decide to write off 2020, but we shouldn’t lose sight of how we can take the experiences of this year to become better communicators, better decision-makers and better leaders

Start by creating an inventory of all the policies and procedures that changed because of COVID-19 and the communications you sent out about them. You probably communicated most of those policy changes, certainly the most significant ones, to your most important audiences – employees, customers, shareholders, vendors – and you have records of that. Take the time now to put it all together into a timeline of decisions and messages.

Turning Back or Moving Forward

Some of these policy changes are here to stay. Others will be reversed as “normal operations” resume, and some will be modified. As you and your leadership team consider whether to keep, modify or ditch policy changes made in response to COVID-19, keep these reputational impacts in mind. Will changing this policy be more or less likely to:

  • Improve our customers’ (the people we serve) view of us
  • Add value to the way we do business
  • Open up new growth opportunities
  • Help or employees do their jobs, and
  • Differentiate us as an employer of choice?

These can become the messages for communicating what you do with these changed policies going forward. Crises are inevitable, but turning back to doing things the way we did before is not. You can also move forward.

The people who matter most to you may be finding comfort in these changed policies and settling into new routines. For example, employees who have worked from home for the last three months have gotten okay with that discomfort, such as when their dog or child interrupts an important meeting. They may not be happy leaving home behind for a commute to the office now that they’re used to working from home and have learned to do it efficiently. Reducing teleworking opportunities or eliminating “thank you” pay incentives will disappoint people who matter most to you, and those communications are going to be hard

Get Ahead of What You’ll Do

Why do a “changed policy” inventory now? It can help you manage disappointment. You can get ahead of the issue and craft messaging before you need it. If it is something people who matter will be excited about, then it is an opportunity to build reputational goodwill – and now is a great time to do that. Could they misunderstand the message? Then it is an opportunity to educate and demonstrate the value to them. If you are disappointing them, then it is necessary to explain the decision even though it will be hard to hear and you can plan for and mitigate possible negative reactions.

Building a “changed policy” inventory will help you apply lessons of what worked and what didn’t work from both an operational standpoint and a communications standpoint. It will make updating business continuity, risk mitigation and crisis plans easier and more valuable. Do not waste this opportunity to improve those plans. 

Building this inventory now will also capture the historical record of these unprecedented challenges. We need to remember what we did, how we did it and what we said about it. These lessons can be applied to any crisis situation we may face in the future. You’ll be able to look back at that log and rediscover that decision we made in May 2020. It looks very much like the decision we’re about to make. You’ll see that what you said then was really effective and went a long way toward maintaining goodwill with people who matter. Or it didn’t go so well, and now you won’t repeat the mistake.

Taking It Further

With your inventory complete, the next step is to consider doing a simulation. Apply these lessons to some other risk your organization faces while the lessons are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Yes, everyone is weary – everyone is just over it – but your organization will benefit from a table-top crisis simulation while you’re still on some semblance of war footing. What did you do as a communicator, a leader, a problem-solver in the past three months that can be effective in another set of circumstances?

We do not know what the next crisis is, but we know that crises are inevitable. It does not take any effort on our part to be hit with a crisis, but it does take effort to learn from this one and be able to apply it to the next one. It is an effort well spent, because the lessons of today may well save your reputation tomorrow.

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.