So What Now? Anticipating Fallout Issues In The Aftermath of COVID-19

As with any crisis situation that an organization faces, things may quiet down and even get resolved (as in a strike), but there will likely be additional issues to consider in the aftermath.  This is particularly true for this pandemic – even as it continues, other issues will rear up, case in point: Amazon’s strikes over work conditions and leadership resignations.  (See  https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52534567#)

For those familiar with issue anticipation, one of many responsibilities of leadership (especially PR/Communications) issues typically fall into 5 categories:

  • Latent:  The issue is largely on the “back burner. Nothing is really happening at this time, but the potential is there for the issue to emerge.  Example:  In the PR field, the issue of “licensing” was once hotly debated but moved to “latent” when accreditation in the field became an option that replaced the need for licensing.
  • Emerging:  A small percentage of the population has identified the issue and it is gaining traction, but it is not yet “hot”. Example: The connection between opioid overdose and brain injury.
  • Hot:  A current issue that is the subject of extensive public debate. Example:  COVID19.
  • Fallout:  An issue born as the consequence of a hot issue.  For example, one fallout issue from COVID19 might be the expansion of remote offices as companies look for ways to cut costs and gain more confidence in the ability of employees to work from home.
  • Association: An issue that hasn’t impacted your organization directly, but it has happened to a similar organization, and therefore your stakeholders are wondering “could that happen to us?” Example:  An active shooter on a private boarding school campus.

While some organizations may have been prepared for a “widespread illness” crisis scenario, virtually no organization – with the exception of some very forward-thinking healthcare organizations — were prepared for something of the magnitude that is the COVID19 global pandemic.   In fact, we have had clients ask us, in retrospect, to amend their crisis communication plans to include a global pandemic scenario. 

Now that the “new normal” is in place, it is time to think about what fallout issues we may have to contend with going forward.  Consider the potential impacts of the current COVID19 environment as we look 6 months to a year out and/or before a vaccination is approved:

  • Consumer fear as a barrier to travel, dining out, using public transportation, attending large gatherings, going away to college, etc.,
  • A potential increase in drug and alcohol misuse (as a coping mechanism),
  • Potential increase in anxiety, depression and mental health issues,
  • Remote workforce preference (by employees and corporations),
  • Labor issues in the spotlight as they fight to protect front-line worker rights,
  • Increase in requirements to safely produce consumer products adds to business overhead, which is then passed on to the consumer and creates more expensive products and services,
  • Increase in taxes to cover the unanticipated expenses resulting from COVID19,
  • Labor trends:  will those headed for retirement take an early retirement package or feel the need to work longer after experiencing stock market losses?
  • Investors change behaviors:  will they take advantage of buying opportunities in a down market or pursue investment opportunities with less risk?
  • Nonprofits consolidate as they compete for a smaller pool of available philanthropic dollars,
  • Decrease in face-to-face professional development (conferences, etc.) and an increase in professional development offered online,
  • Emphasis on environmental controls after seeing the short-term positive effects of the stay-at-home order on our air and water supplies,
  • Healthcare costs increase as health issues related to COVID 19 spike and vaccines for highly-contagious illnesses become mandatory,
  • Consolidation of small businesses as many experience bankruptcy after extended period of closure forced by restrictions,
  • Trend of “gap years” and community college attendance in lieu of paying high college costs for what could end up being a remote learning experience, at least in the immediate future,
  • Increase in “depression-era savings mentality” now that the new generation has lived through uncertain financial times.

It is the role of every public relations/communications leader to think about and prepare for what is next for your organization and to think strategically about how you will communicate about it.  Building trust and communicating with transparency will be critical. 

How effectively your organization communicated during this crisis and responded to stakeholder needs will either have improved your reputation as a trustworthy company or damaged it.  Either way, communicating in the “new normal” era will require your organization’s highest and best skills going forward , so those in the PR/communications field – and those they report to — should consider them “essential”!

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA is Senior Counsel and Partner at Jackson Jackson & Wagner, a behavioral public relations and management consulting firm based in the Seacoast of NH.  For more information, visit JJ&W’s website at www.jjwpr.com or email Stacey at ssmith@jjwpr.com.

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