Why you must prepare for crises beyond COVID-19

Things can always get worse, right? It’s unpleasant to consider, but comms pros must be vigilant to mitigate the damage done by unforeseen events.

Preparing for crises beyond COVID

Never in my almost 40 years of crisis management experience have I ever I have seen an America more prone to erupt in new crises than right now.

No one likes to look at hard truths, yet part of our job as crisis management professionals and communicators is to look for trouble before it occurs and, if we can, help our employers or clients head it off.  If we can’t, take advance steps to mitigate the damage.  In that spirit, the following may make you wince – and it may save you a whole lot of stress and financial woe.

Review this list of crises that could strike at any time, followed by comments as to why the chances of each type of crisis have been exacerbated at this time in our nation’s history.  Even though this list is specific to the food biz, I’m sure you’ll see how much of the same applies to your organization.

Crises that could affect food industry businesses

  • Accidents resulting in injury or death — on-site or off-site. Stress is already a factor in workplace accidents, and stress is up exponentially.
  • Activism – on the internet or on-site. Intense emotions on all sides of current issues are likely to produce a far higher level of activism, with the worst of it spilling over into violence.  People are feeling out of control in so many areas of their life that, when they see a chance to make a difference through activism, they’re much more likely to take it now than, say, the same time a year ago.  Differences on issues could also spill over into the workplace.  Various stakeholders could demand your organization take a stand on issues, leading to very public criticism.  Activism groups and tactics are likely to intersect with quite a few areas of potential crises, as you’ll see below.
  • Criminal behavior (non-violent) by employees. Under severe enough psychological and financial pressure, previously honest employees get more desperate.  If checks and balances aren’t tight enough, crimes will take place.
  • Criminal behavior (violent) by employees. Do you have employees whose temperament is already a bit iffy? It’s going to get worse under current stressors.  HR needs to monitor particularly closely during these extremely challenging times.
  • Disasters – natural or man-made. There’s no stopping Mother Nature, of course, but how well your organization survives a natural disaster is entirely contingent on how well your people are able to execute your disaster plans – and under current stressors, their bandwidth could be stretched far more than previously anticipated.  Further, the chances of a man-made disaster (e.g., accidental forest fire) also increases with an increase in human “brain fog.”
  • Environmental issues – direct (your products or manufacturing process) or indirect (your industry is criticized). This ties into the increased propensity for activism of all kinds right now.  People nationwide are finding their voices.
  • Epidemics/pandemics. What can I say? We weren’t ready for COVID-19, and we’re not ready for the next virus, either.  There have been many crisis management best practices unveiled, however, that can help you upgrade your planning and prep in this area.
  • Interruption in product flow (e.g., due to dock strike, supplier problems, loss of warehouse due to fire). Add to the list of “routine” reasons for interruption the sudden loss of business contacts, customers, clients, suppliers from COVID-related financial hardship.  Time to quickly ensure you have backups for people and systems.
  • Information security breach (e.g., confidential customer information, proprietary formulas). Hackers are already taking full advantage of everyone’s distraction and stress to exploit systems directly and through social engineering.  IT is probably feeling pretty darn overwhelmed with intrusion attempts.  Do they have the resources they need?
  • Investigations by local, state or national authorities. An increase in activism will translate, for some, to an increase in complaints made to various agencies.
  • Labor & employment issues, such as discrimination or harassment. It’s already happening, with employees blaming employers for not protecting them sufficiently from COVID-19, from discriminatory behavior, etc. Many of these now-more-likely scenarios can breed lawsuits.
  • Legislation unfriendly to your company’s plans (for example, restrictions by any government in countries where you do business that evolve from longer-term governmental involvement in trying to prevent future occurrences.) We are living in a time when political leaders are exercising control by executive orders and other quick-action mechanisms, with such hasty decisions having significant downstream impact for all stakeholders.
  • Loss (partial or complete) of key facility (e.g., due to disaster, internal infrastructure failure). Some of types of situations that can lead to such a loss, as described elsewhere on this list, are now more likely to happen.
  • Permit and regulatory violations. Some of types of situations that can lead to violations, as described elsewhere on this list, are now more likely to happen.
  • Product contamination. Distracted/stressed workers at every stage of the food chain are more likely to inadvertently make errors leading to product contamination.
  • Product sabotage (including terrorism). Simply put: We’ve got some real crazies out there right now.  Extreme activists willing to engage in kidnapping a governor wouldn’t hesitate to sabotage a product if in their twisted thinking it sent a message.
  • Sudden management changes, voluntary or involuntary. In our current state of economic distress, there seem to be far more businesses folding, merging, acquiring and re-structuring than in any recent period in our history, with attendant management changes that can throw fear and confusion into the workplace if not well handled.

This is the time, therefore, to:

  • Review your existing crisis preparedness-related plans and see if they need to be tweaked or quickly upgraded a bit to address the higher level of overall threat.
  • Conduct some quick refresher training for members of your crisis management team(s).
  • Involve HR perhaps more than you usually would in crisis preparedness due to the higher propensity for an employee-caused crisis.

Jonathan Bernstein is chairman and founder of Bernstein Crisis Management. Read more insights on his blog.


One Response to “Why you must prepare for crises beyond COVID-19”

    Mark Harris says:

    A timely reminder that all organisations need to review, rehearse, test their crisis management systems in order to ensure resilience when confronted by issues and crises against the backdrop of Covid-19. I also endorse your final point Jonathan on involving HR more. It is my experience over the last 20 plus years that HR has not been included in plan development.

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