‘Coronavirus Has Made Me Long for a ‘Normal’ Crisis’

businessman thinking at a coffee shop
For communicators, does COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, meet the definition of a crisis? Do those PR pros who have managed a crisis even recognize this as an event that can be handled through traditional means? I sure don’t. This is profoundly different.

Bring on a real crisis. Give us a fighting chance. COVID-19 is otherworldly. 

If a communicator tells you they’ve got this figured out, they don’t. And never mind the backseat communications directors who aren’t living the frontline challenges of COVID-19, other than on Twitter. Mute them.

New Paradigm

The tried-and-true crisis strategies—getting out front, setting the tone and being available—are givens. The tactics of digital, media relations and internal communications—also givens. Execute them all. But the shifting sands of this emergency makes getting a foot-hold almost impossible. 

When managing crises in the before-times, we knew recovery was around the corner. The initial incident or event–the emergency itself–had a relatively short lifespan. You managed with the next phase of rebuilding in mind, be it infrastructure or reputation.

COVID-19 will be eradicated. There will be recovery. But when? People continue to get sick, some very sick. The death toll is rising in shocking waves. Is this an incident? An emergency? A crisis? It’s most certainly a tragedy, the likes of which we have not seen in a century. As Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg said to me one evening recently, “This is the emergency exercise from hell.”  

The pandemic is devastating families, healthcare systems and economies. It is up-ending—temporarily, at least—life as we know it.

The Communicator's Role

Communicators can help explain what distancing means, how and why it works. We hammer home the message to stay home. And we use social media to inform, educate and, occasionally, chastise those who ignore public health directives to coerce greater compliance. Many of us are involved in messaging for locking down communities. In and of itself, this is massive behavior change communications. We must keep it up, refine the messages, clarify and repeat. 

Constant Shifting

Then it shifts. Now we ask people to do this, beware of that. All the while people are losing jobs, not to mention loved ones and friends. And it is here we find ourselves stumped, frustrated and a little overwhelmed. 

We don’t need new messaging. We need a timeline. Will a public information campaign, and all that goes into such a beast, be valid when it reaches its intended audience? Or will the landscape have shifted again?

We increasingly rely on digital, naturally, but it feels like a never-ending strategy of reaction. One question begets another, not the certainty we all crave. COVID-19 eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner – takeout, of course.

'Get My Life Back'

Unlike most crises, there is no human error to cite, no technological flaw to fix so it will never happen again. Empathy, leadership and accountability are hallmarks of sound crisis communications that, save for a few, officials are practicing admirably. There have been no “I want my life back” moments, a la BP CEO Tony Hayward following the Gulf oil spill. 

Now, we all want our lives back. COVID-19 seemingly has plucked us from our daily grind and hurled us into this nightmare. 

COVID-19 is immune to proven crisis communications management. Illness, death and unprecedented disruption on a scale of this magnitude is, without question, a crisis desperately in need of a solution. This isn’t crisis communications, it’s a communications crisis.

Brad Ross is Chief Communications Officer of the City of Toronto