Hindsight is of course 20/20, but there does feel to be an air of inevitability with respect to recent events. We had long been told by scientists and medical specialists about the risks of a second wave of infections, that restrictions would continue in some form well into new year, and the potential dangers of prolonging the effects of COVID if people “did not follow the rules”. Granted, the situation has evolved: the discovery of new variants of the virus are clearly unwelcome (with increased transmission potential being somewhat unexpected); the development and rollout of new vaccines, in contrast, are hugely positive and will hopefully lead to an end to one of the most disruptive periods in recent history.
Throughout the crisis, however, a key characteristic has been the questionable quality of communications and the articulation of key messages. The last two months are a case in point. In the UK, we have gone from a period of lockdown (November), to a relaxation of restrictions over Christmas that were themselves removed with little warning mere days before the holidays, to schools reopening and then closing in the face of a national lockdown just a day later.
This is not to make light of the challenges that policy makers have faced over the last twelve months – this is the most difficult scenario society has faced in decades and the challenges are evident. Nevertheless, the very basic principles of how to manage and communicate in a crisis – clear and consistent messaging; defined structures to take and articulate decisions; managing expectations; regularly reviewing and updating communications strategies – seem to have been wholly ejected in favour of a reactionary approach that does not appear to be underpinned by a clear, strategic plan.
Within such a complex and emotive landscape, clarity and precision of language are more critical than ever, as are the development of effective frameworks to take decisions and communicate these quickly. More often than not, these are the difference between being ‘on the front foot’ and being able to shape events and perceptions, versus being seen as being unable to manage the situation at hand which will inevitably lead to disquiet and frustration.
These principles do not, of course, just apply to policy makers; they are equally applicable to the financial world. With businesses facing various pressures and investment markets proving volatile and responsive to changing sentiment, the ability of companies to explain their approach, thinking and the results that can be expected as a result may prove a critical factor in determining long-term success or failure.
Indeed, in many ways, such crisis scenarios are the ultimate proving ground for businesses and whilst there are substantial pitfalls to be navigated, there are also considerable opportunities to benefit from. Those able to demonstrate an ability to adapt quickly to events, think ahead and communicate clearly and effectively with key stakeholders will likely emerge with their reputations enhanced, potentially retaining and growing their customer base. Those that fail to do so will inevitably struggle.
We can only hope that 2021 shows at least some improvements on what has been a truly annus horribilis. Quite how much it improves for businesses will, to a large degree, depend on how they well they are able to communicate clearly and effectively in order to manage customer expectations and respond to their needs.