Analysis

What was the pandemic hiding?

Barnaby Fry

The pandemic presented a crisis for all organisations as they struggled to adapt to the changing circumstances. Public attention rightly shifted to reducing the spread of the virus and mitigating against the economic impact of prolonged lockdown.

The collective focus on the virus also meant that the usual scrutiny of organisations was side-lined, for three key reasons:

  • Visibility

Firstly, a lack of physical access to businesses due to infection control measures meant there was less visibility over standards and operations. Coupled with suspensions of regulatory reporting in many sectors, this meant a setback in terms of accountability and transparency. Stakeholders were not as informed as they should be about what went on in organisations. Recently the FT reported that, in the UK alone, only a quarter of the UK companies normally eligible to report their gender pay gap data did so in time for the April deadline this year.

  • Patience

As society grappled to come to terms with the implications of a pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, public patience and forgiveness spiked. Customers were forgiving about long queues to speak with customer service, we permitted delays in supply chains and understood reductions in staff numbers.

  • Priorities

That leads us to the third factor that contributed to the pandemic concealing your next crisis: priorities. Even when we were aware of issues within organisations, all of our energy was directed towards the pandemic. The ultimate priority was the safety of our friends, family and community.

A shifting focus:

As we emerge from lockdown and vaccination rates decrease the chance of severe illness, the blindfold comes off. Regulatory investigations and organisational reporting will reveal how organisations coped with the pandemic, what mistakes were made, and how far businesses are from recovery.

The public will again have access to organisations and their forgiveness for poor service and delays will have been worn out. After over a year of lockdowns, businesses are expected to have learned to cope with the complications posed by the pandemic. Renewed freedoms in our everyday lives is abruptly ended our combined patience.

Brand loyalty is at risk and social media and the tabloids are the weapons of choice for the consumer, made all the more powerful by a media that has been even more heavily reliant on social media than ever before and whose victim is only a zoom call, direct to studio, away.

The priority slowly transitions from being about infection control to a focus on a return to normalcy. We will again care about the things that were important back in 2019, and now we have a clamour for scrutiny and a desire to attribute blame for the many tragedies of the pandemic. High profile priorities will once more come to the fore, meaning scrutiny of your supply chain, environmental impact and staff welfare and working conditions are considerable and rapidly re-emerging threats.

We already see this reflected in the news, where the headlines are no longer universally dominated by COVID. There is space for other stories, and one of those stories could be about your crisis.

What you should be doing to prepare:

Register: Every organisation should be evaluating its performance during the pandemic through multiple lenses. Update your communications risk register and study the horizon to understand where scrutiny will come from. Think about all your stakeholders, including regulators, employees and customers.

Reconsider: Consider doing things differently after the pandemic. Don’t just go back to the way you were, as values and expectations have changed. Now is the time to consider how you would react in a crisis in this new context.

Relearn: Don’t assume you know how your stakeholders will react. Just as you have changed in the pandemic, so have they. Know your narrative and work out what you will need to respond to and be ready to communicate it and defend it robustly.

If you want to learn how this might impact your reputation, please contact crisis@mhpc.com.