Home » Oh My Confucius, the Pangolin Has Hit the Fan

Oh My Confucius, the Pangolin Has Hit the Fan

by | Apr 20, 2020

By Tom Davis, Vice President, Susan Davis International

The origins of crisis management are found in the studies of how organizations responded to catastrophic incidents in the 1980’s. Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, Johnson & Johnson dealing with the cyanide laced Tylenol capsules. Johnson & Johnson acquitted itself admirably, Union Carbide and Exxon did not fare as well.

The failures of Union Carbide and Exxon helped create momentum for the development of crisis management planning, a practice spurred on by the chemical and petrochemical industries and the nuclear industry.

As more and more consultants entered the crisis management field it became fashionable to say “the Chinese word for crisis means danger and opportunity.” Turns out that’s not really the case, but by golly it helps people make a point they wish to get across about looking for opportunity.

Now, as the night skies wave goodbye to the brightest super moon of 2020, seems an appropriate moment to wax philosophical about a question that burns deep in the minds of probably fewer than a dozen people on the planet…is the Covid-19 pandemic a crisis?

To those of you quickly answering yes, I say not so fast. What the pandemic actually represents is a triggering event. Over decades of consulting on organizational crisis management we’ve used this description of crisis… “an incident or event that poses the threat of harm to an organization and can be injurious to its operations and/or reputation.” 

Obviously if you’re in the restaurant or hospitality business, the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a crisis for you. Ditto for the airline industry, and for much of the health care industry, and for countless thousands of businesses large and small whose daily operations have been injured or extinguished. But there are businesses for which the pandemic represents more opportunity than crisis, think streaming video, social media platforms, e-commerce, telehealth, food delivery.

Those businesses experiencing a crisis can be divided into three groups, those who have a crisis management plan and are executing it, those who are now creating a crisis management plan on the fly, and those who are simply flying by the seat of their pants. While the last category may be the most exhilarating, I suspect those who have a crisis management plan and are executing it are sleeping a little better.

One of the clear benefits of having a crisis management plan is that it provides an orderly transition to a crisis footing. Assuming your plan actually represents your capabilities and captures how your organization will function during crisis, you should be operating with as much efficiency and effectiveness as the current state of affairs permits.

We’ve seen some plaintive suggestions along the line of “no one prepares for a pandemic.” Well, to put it gently, baloney! Government agencies prepare, larger businesses with more sophisticated crisis management programs and associated modeling prepare. One can argue about the adequacy of the preparation, but the risk of pandemic is known. Yet if an organization has engaged in meaningful crisis management planning it is not essential that it specifically addressed pandemic.

That is true because organizational planning should follow the all-hazards model. What this means is that one does not actually plan for every conceivable hazard, but anticipates the characteristics that are common across a range of hazards and develops capabilities to effectively respond to the impacts of those characteristics. This is the path we follow to get to the “in this event our employees will have to work from home”, or “in this event our supply chain will be disrupted.”

A phrase I’ve often used when discussing crisis management is “it’s not the plan, it’s the planning.” What your plan says may not specifically address a given situation, but the effort you’ve put into analyzing risks and identifying vulnerabilities, creating capabilities and developing a management structure and procedures for dealing with a crisis can make a world of difference, protecting your business, assuring your stakeholders, preserving your reputation.

Whatever the state of your current crisis posture, one thing businesses should be doing is capturing lessons learned. As your organization is stressed, you will learn what you are doing that is working, what you should have done but didn’t, what you can do better. For example, the Chinese wet market business might note concern over how it handled the outbreak initially and opt for creating more hygienic market conditions, while advising customers to cook a pangolin to a minimum internal temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and baste it with a nice antiseptic glaze. Other businesses may find their lessons more mundane, but all should be capturing lessons and should incorporate them into future crisis planning.

We’ve all heard the supposedly sagacious political advice to “never let a crisis go to waste.” Capturing your lessons learned will be a modest step in that direction.


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