Nothing induces as much fear as the unknown, especially when the unknown is a new outbreak of disease. Corporate crises can take many forms, but a high-profile emerging outbreak can be unique in that it generates concern not only for a company’s operations, but also for the health of its people, as well as their loved ones, neighbors and communities. Leaders should approach these situations thoughtfully and sensitively in terms of their own decision-making, where they source their information, and also in terms of their consideration for their teams in what can be a stressful and emotional time.  The following ten insights reflect some of the most valuable lessons our crisis management professionals have learned on the front lines of helping clients successfully navigate not just the operational but also the human side of SARS, MERS and the evolving novel coronavirus: 

1. Knowledge is power

As medical science is forced to play catch-up in the midst of an evolving medical crisis, we have to accept that facts as they initially emerge will likely change as our collective understanding of the threat evolves. Staying abreast of the evolution of that understanding itself, as well as the changing implications /of that evolution, is a must. Use of a multi-disciplinary team (e.g., operations, crisis management, business continuity, legal, risk, human resources, safety and security, finance, and communications) that considers a plethora of differing likely and impactful scenarios is key. You can’t consider every potential scenario (nor should you try to). But starting more broadly and then refining your focus as the scientific understanding of the threat evolves—and in response to the actions of the WHO, medical authorities, and national governments—will enable you to make informed decisions in real time. Consider creating trigger-based escalation matrixes to capture key scenarios and aid in responding to changes in the outbreak.

2. But not all knowledge is truth

While the news media can provide insight into the outbreak and keep you apprised of how governments are reacting, it can also provide plenty of room for speculation and rumors that don’t help individuals or companies manage daily decision-making. When the internet affords everyone the opportunity to be a “reporter,” it can be difficult to decipher what is fact versus fiction versus fear mongering. As a result, it’s important to identify trusted sources of information you will be comfortable basing decisions upon. 

3. Transparency is king

While knowledge is power, let there be no doubt that transparency is king and the key to any organization’s duty of care obligations. Trust takes years to cultivate but can be lost in mere seconds. Hiding, obfuscating or, in some instances, simply failing to proactively share knowledge others may view as important will kill trust in an instant. Employers have a duty of care to share trusted sources of information and help employees distill the plethora of competing truths that may present themselves. When in doubt, err on the side of transparency.

4. Trust your prior planning and preparedness 

You have planned, prepared for and drilled your teams to respond to a wide array of crisis scenarios. Now is the time to trust those efforts and execute your plans. All scenarios will present what appear to be “unique circumstances” that may feel like one-offs. They aren’t—at least not to the extent that you would want to abandon the planning and mechanisms you’ve already put in place. Trust the processes you’ve built and trust your teams to execute your plans.

5. Be prepared for unanticipated impacts

It’s one thing to have to make decisions that may affect your health or your business in the absence of perfect information. It can be another thing altogether though to then have to explain those decisions to loved ones with different thresholds for, or perspectives on, the myriad risks that may be posed. Decisions we make every day without a second thought (e.g., whether or not to go to work, or how to get there) may well become highly charged and stressful. Employers who don’t go out of their way to acknowledge this and support their people in the face of these challenges risk losing first the trust, and second the commitment, of their people. 

6. Remain flexible and agile

Crises are fluid. When new information comes in, it’s important to validate or invalidate existing courses of action, potentially requiring recalibration of decisions and actions. Companies that succeed in managing crises do so because they are frequently reevaluating facts versus assumptions and adjusting critical actions based on new information and emerging trends. Decisions made today can have long-term implications, and thus we must be comfortable with changing direction multiple times in order to tackle the complexities of an emerging outbreak.

7. Every individual will respond differently

We’re all individuals with different experiences that shape how we view, and interact with, the world around us. In times of extreme stress, it’s easy to lose sight of that and expect others to share our perceptions of what’s rational—or, worse, to view perspectives different from our own as wholly irrational. This applies to all levels within an organization—from the shop floor to senior execs—and in situations like this we see human nature transcending corporate hierarchy. Empathy, patience and acceptance are key. Respecting and supporting our differences will facilitate a high-functioning leadership team.  Bullying, ignoring differences or attempting to enforce a standardized perspective will almost certainly prove highly destructive.

8. A crisis (once) in motion tends to stay in motion

If you wait to begin taking action until an evolving threat is already impacting your business, you will have missed the opportunity to get ahead of it. Once that metaphorical boulder starts rolling down the hill, it’s a lot harder to slow it down, let alone stop it altogether. Early, proactive and decisive action, especially if focused on protecting your people and your assets, will almost always pay dividends.

9. Don’t forget to take time to appreciate your employees

An outbreak will inevitably result in a lot of employees coming together across all levels, working long hours, all in the interest of protecting the company’s people, assets and continuity of operations. This is no small task and companies should take the time following a crisis to acknowledge these sometimes-herculean efforts, and also to reward employees for their dedication to the company during the hardest of times. One-time bonuses, extra vacation time, and company retreats are just some of the ways we’ve seen companies reward their responders, further creating a bond between the company and its people.  

10. Navigate the now, but never lose sight of the future

It’s absolutely critical to track lessons learned in the moment so no opportunities to learn from the experience are lost. A crisis by its very nature is often unpredictable and there’s no shame in not having foreseen all the challenges. There is, however, accountability for ensuring you learn every lesson afforded in the face of a crisis and that you’re better prepared for the future. If nothing else, companies should take the time following the outbreak to conduct a post-incident-review that focuses on evaluating how prepared they were for the outbreak and how effectively they responded to it, actioning any gaps identified during the review.

Corporate crises threaten businesses. Emerging outbreaks can threaten not just business outcomes, but also—and more importantly—people. Taking care of your people, their families and communities in the midst of an outbreak must remain at the fore of your thoughts. Business leaders also cannot lose sight of the need to simultaneously manage the significant operational impacts, further complicating how this particular type of crisis is managed. All crises present companies with opportunities to emerge as leaders, gain both shareholder and employee trust, and earn their respect through the successful navigation of a complex event. 


If you would like to discuss your approach to novel coronavirus or emerging outbreaks more broadly, our team is well-placed to assist. Please contact c[email protected].

Detailed medical and travel security information can be found on the website of our partner International SOS, which can also help with specific medical advice and planning.

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