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Setting up a crisis business during a pandemic

Amanda Coleman says that she never planned it, but it seems fitting that the first day of running her crisis communication consultancy coincided with the first day of the UK's lockdown that began in March 2020. Here, she summarises the past year's trials and tribulations.

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Dealing with multiple crises requires a carefully developed approach to communication. Image: wklzzz/123rf

I expected that going it alone would be challenging, but this was going to be more difficult than I had anticipated. The past year has made everyone think about crisis response, crisis communication and risk management. For many people it will have been the first time they have been at the sharp end of dealing with a crisis, and it has been a steep learning curve.

The pandemic has revealed a lot about how organisations operate when they are suddenly and unexpectedly plunged into a crisis. For the first few months of lockdown, the shutters were put up and this phase of the crisis persisted as whole industries were affected by the restrictions. Organisations focused on making sure that their systems and processes were in place and working.

As time went on there was an acceptance that specialist help and support were needed to upskill staff and to strengthen the systems in place. Many had to deal with the realisation that crises don't neatly happen one after another, and organisations could be juggling several at the same time. The focus may have been on the Covid-19 pandemic, but there were also floods, fires, cyber attacks and reputational crises to tackle. Dealing with multiple crises requires a carefully developed approach to communication.

The past year has provided an opportunity for individuals to learn more about themselves and how they deal with pressure, stress, risk and knockbacks. Some will use this information to work out how to improve and develop in order to be more prepared for future challenges. It is the same for those businesses and organisations that have used this time as a chance to learn and gather details about how they can emerge from the pandemic stronger and better able to weather storms ahead. Others are still struggling to reconcile the situation, or are pinning hopes on things returning to ‘normal’ at some point soon. The latter group are often the ones rushing to get to the recovery phase of the crisis.

In my work looking at crisis communication, risk, and resilience I have seen organisations in many different states. It was after summer 2020 that organisations seemed to be ready to look forward and seek some help and support. The early months of setting up the consultancy really tested my own resilience and required me, like many business owners, to reassess and refresh what I was doing.

I have learnt so much from my year in business, but I would say that three key points to take away are to have a unique selling proposition (USP) and keep it at the heart of what the organisation does; be aware of risks, prepare and be ready to deal with them; and have the right systems and processes in place.

So, what does all this mean for the future, particularly for crisis response and crisis communication? All three of the points above are applicable to businesses that are looking at what comes next as the impact of Covid-19 continues. They must find what they have to offer people in the future and be able to articulate it clearly. They need to be aware of the risks that may be ahead, and ensure that they have planned, prepared and are ready to deal with them. They also need to ensure that they have the right systems and processes in place to face whatever the future brings.

The future is uncertain, but having crisis response and risk management systems in place can restore a level of certainty when dealing with the complex recovery phase. Communication is at the heart of this work and needs to be ensuring it is ready for the next stage of the pandemic – a move towards recovery. This is no time for anyone to feel that they have ‘done crisis’ or that they ‘just want to move on’. We all remember the inappropriate comments from BP’s Tony Hayward in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This is not a time to try to ‘get your life back’ but to make sure you continue to deal effectively with the ongoing pandemic and lasting impact it will have.

The last 12 months have been tough for us all. I know now that this is probably not the best time to start a new business whether it has a crisis focus or not. But the past year has reminded me why I set up a crisis communication consultancy in the first place. It is being able to help businesses and people to navigate through the most challenging moments in their lives and develop from them that makes me jump out of bed in the morning.

Throughout 2020 and what we have experienced so far of 2021, communication has been critical to the crisis response. The priority now is not to slow down, but to keep pushing ahead to help find a way through to recovery.

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