Many organisations are caught out by a crisis that starts not with a bang but a whimper. The coronavirus is just one such slow growing crisis. It has taken time for authorities to see the “story” of the virus – to understand its pattern and predict its impact.
The result is that many institutions are being driven by events rather than attempting to get ahead of them to modify the outcome.
These types of crises are real tests of leadership because they require decision-making when evidence is limited. Reacting to an explosion is easy, for example, because the nature of the crisis is very clear and dictates an almost intuitive response. Reacting to events that unfold gradually, like customer dissatisfaction, falling productivity, or a virus, is much harder. If you wait for the threat to be clear enough to dictate your action, it’s usually too late to react successfully.
That’s when recriminations start, empowered by the benefit of hindsight. When stakeholders ask why actions were not taken earlier, they are not satisfied with the answer that ‘my officials were monitoring a very uncertain situation’.
Organisations, like people, typically under-react to the slow burn crisis. The reasons are deeply psychological; involving social behaviour and human evolution.
Decisiveness is the ability to rise above these factors; to have the courage to act when the pressure points are unclear and the results of your actions uncertain.
The role of PR in these circumstances is to give the leader a kind of psychic cover; to provide justifications for dramatic actions that may only be vindicated much later or may never be.