Fifteen years ago, Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” changed how we viewed the global economy, shifting from traditional centers of economic growth to an interconnected ecosystem, that together pushes the wheels of global trade forward. The advancements of digital technologies has only led to further economic integration. As a result of this, business challenges in Shenzhen can directly impact companies headquartered in California.  

This is being played out right now with the Covid-19 virus. As events continue to unfold, less prepared communications departments will scramble to reactively address the situation. Compounding this problem is the impact of poor communications on a company’s brand reputation, as evidenced by the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020. So, in a time when trust is low and fear is high, failing to communicate effectively in a crisis is a serious shortcoming; of which the consequences for corporate reputation and the C-Suite will be felt for a long time to come. Businesses in the Middle East are starting to feel the pressure of the precautionary steps that are being implemented to prevent the spread of the virus. However, in times like this, it is critical that business leaders are able to lead communications and strengthen trust in their organisations.

Transparency in adversity

Moving from the UK’s NHS to the Middle East, one of my first assignments was to support the Saudi Ministry of Health as they battled a similar public health issue in MERS-CoV. With Covid-19, it is inspiring to see leadership in the GCC adopt a transparent approach while ensuring that the public are reassured about the infrastructure and processes that has been established.  A transparent response to a crisis should never be downplayed or delayed. Additionally, misinformation and fear are likely to remain a constant, particularly on social media, as crisis situations progress. Therefore, distributing accurate and reliable information in a timely manner will serve to strengthen a company’s reputation with stakeholders and the public. A reactive or delayed response to an unexpected and quickly unfolding crisis will inevitably reveal weaknesses and expose a company’s lack of preparedness, leading to a further erosion of trust.

Proactivity is the best response to any crisis

The lack of transparency on the other hand in some countries has led to global criticism as well as complications around the management of the Covid-19 issue. Being proactive during a crisis gives public and private sector organisations, and an opportunity to shape the narrative and not dilute public trust. Crisis today is not just limited to a media relations fiasco alone, but in an interconnected world, issues ranging from supply chain disruption to cybersecurity breaches can have major implications on the bottom-line. Businesses who act fast, acknowledge issues and are solution-oriented will be better-placed on their recovery trajectory as compared to organisations who get caught on the backfoot.   

Preparation for crisis communication has never been more vital

The importance of communicating effectively during a crisis is widely acknowledged but is often overlooked by those responsible for developing a response. There is sometimes a view that ‘this can’t happen to us’ which is a sure-fire way to ensure maximum damage will be inflicted when a crisis eventually finds you. So, as headline grabbing stories continue to flood the media, often creating a sense of panic, a company’s response must be concise, clear and transparent. Any delay in responding will lead to more damage to reputation as it opens the door to further questions about a company’s practices. Building crisis communications tools will not be enough. It is important that businesses are able to simulate real-world scenarios to ensure solid preparedness for any eventuality. 

The bottom line is that every organization is vulnerable to a crisis. The theory is that every company faces around 100 crisis situations a year, but few make it into the public domain. Fortunately, there are always common themes throughout crisis communications, including the steps to be taken in preparation for such events. As a rule, going over and above is valued by all stakeholders; that is why we are seeing the UAE Government for example receiving recognition for their efforts to contain Covid-19. 

Wherever possible ensure transparency and visibility; continually updating your audience, including employees, and building trust. Be ready, know your system for escalation, management and communication. The benefits of doing so will become clear in the wake of the current outbreak.

The wider impacts of a global health emergency may be unpredictable, but with the right planning and preparation, every organization can ensure the best possible outcome given the circumstances.


By: Omar Qirem — Chief Executive Officer at Edelman ME