LOVE in the time of COVID-19 or the lack of it

The above title is purely clickbait, although, there is a tenuous connection between Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s suggestion that love is an illness and my belief, that apathy in crisis communications is a disease. After legions of case studies, conferences and even entire curricula devoted to the subject, why is it we often still get it so wrong?

The answer must be triangulated somewhere between denial, optimism and fear. Many of us are inclined to believe that worst-case scenarios are just that - scenarios, while some of us live in a unicorn laden garden called "That’ll never happen to me". There is a third bunch that basically just gets scared because crisis exposes the fact that they should have done something earlier and did not.

Whatever the case may be, when it hits, you can be sure that everybody in the C-suite will be looking at you, Mr or Ms comms person! While your initial response is to want to scream “I told you so!” or “That is why you should have included us earlier!”, save the smugness for later. We communications people are a little like goalkeepers in football, you will always get the blame. So the best thing you can do for yourself is to summon your inner Iker Casillas or Peter Schmeichel!

I have a very simple formula for crisis communications. It is called LOVE.

1. L: Leadership

This is simple biology. We are pack animals and when the pack is in danger, it craves leadership so be the Alpha. Speak up and make decisions, even if you are not sure, because that is where your compatriots will jump in. All they need to see is courage. Communications is a strategic management function so you must act the part.

Question, demand and shout if you have to, not because you want to be a hero but because your actions will prompt others to get off their behinds.

In most cases, it is not that you have answers but it is that nobody ever thought about the questions. Many a bad crisis could have been prevented if the communications function had prepared a decent FAQ. In my fairly limited career, I can think of at least five instances where by asking pointed questions, communications saved the day because the project proponents were too invested to see the downside.

Most of all, be gracious. Nobody ever set out to do harm and to err is human so when you question, try to not make your questions, accusations. A great example of leadership in this space is still Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol case from 1982 when the company very decisively took actions that put the customer ahead of profits. A move that eventually earned them greater trust than before the issue.

2. O: Organisation

Even at the best of times, we live in a chaotic universe. Between Instagram, Twitter, CNN and all the myriad shared spaces that assault our consciousness, we truly are living in the era of hyper-reality as described by French sociologist Jean Baurillard. The ability to file things clearly in one’s head then becomes uber critical for a communications professional.

With so many moving parts, the ability to know what goes where and more importantly when, will be the determinant between failure and success. Of course in the perfect world, you would have already put together a crisis communications plan and everybody would know what to do. Failing which, map your resources, understand your chinks and then deploy accordingly, within an hour. Kudos must be given to AirAsia on this. The speed and cadence of their communication after flight QZ 8501 went down was in the words of "The Donald", amazing.

3. V: Verity

More often than not, in a crisis you will be, under extreme pressure, to tow the company line or be seen as a "team player". This is the true test of a communications professional’s being. While virtue and PR are hardly mentioned in the same breath, remember that you are what American liberal arts professors Timothy Coombs and Sherry Holladay described as the boundary spanner.

It is as much your job to tell the organisation what the public thinks, as it is the other way. In such times is when you must fight to serve as the conscience of the corporation.

Do not attempt ethical calisthenics in a time of crisis. Your public are not as gullible as you would like to believe.

You will be found out, if not today, eventually. If you have doubts about this, just look at the long line of once glorified leaders who are currently awaiting their time in our Malaysian courts.

4. E: Empathy

One of the biggest mistakes in crisis communications is the objectification of the subject. Death becomes "a fatality", a man in pain becomes "the patient" and a bombing becomes "an incident". The semaphore of corporate language is designed to make things clinical and objective. In a crisis, there is no such thing. The pain, loss and devastation are very real and cut deep. While your first thought may be to ensure no liability, that is hardly what the public want to hear.

The mantra is simple, hug first, blame later. Walk in the shoes of those who are affected.

Ask yourself how you’d feel if your flight was delayed through no fault of the airlines or if you were in a bad accident despite the fact that the car’s airbags deployed in time. Crisis is about empathy and it is here that corporations and governments can show their humanity.

So, here we are at the start of a precarious road. A road that is likely to get far worse before it gets better. As communications people, you will be tested in ways that you never thought possible, but then I have often held the notion that this is the heart of our profession - the art of the impossible! So steel yourselves and embrace it. Just like Florentino embraced Femina in the book titled Love in the time of cholera, embrace your crisis with LOVE.

The writer is Vijayaratnam Tharumartnam, director, group corporate communications, PROTON.