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Crisis Management Lessons from China's Corona Virus

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

Travelling to Atlanta this week for a workshop with a multinational organisation to discuss Strategic Reputation Management and Crisis Communications, I got time to read an in-depth report on the Corona Virus outbreak and the handling of it by the Chinese authorities.

It struck me how many similarities and lessons to be learned there were between the challenges Beijing and Wuhan officials face and those before Directors of Communications, Operations Vice Presidents and Senior Leadership in modern global organisations handling crises. I thought I'd share a few:


One of the key criticisms of the Chinese Government's handling of the crisis is around news management. The story of the virus was broken by an independent scientist who saw the magnitude of what was unfolding and went public. It now transpires the local medical authorities were aware of the potential pandemic a few weeks earlier but failed to communicate with the public in a timely way. As those who have helped manage and rebuild reputations following crisis will attest, not being in control of the news agenda makes the mission exponentially more complex. Whistle-blowers, well-timed leaks, the ubiquitous camera-phone are all a fact of modern life and need to be incorporated into your Crisis Management thinking and planning.


According to the report, the reason the Chinese Authorities delayed was because they were worried about the political fallout and reaction. It seems more junior officials in local and regional government were fearful of what the repercussions of telling Beijing there was 'a problem' would be. Again, crisis managers will recognize the paralysis which can occur in an organisation when the culture doesn't encourage open and frank information exchange. The local officials sat on the information hoping against hope that it would somehow resolve itself, or someone else would step up to the plate and call head office. Creating a culture where employees, suppliers, retailers and others feel comfortable telling you of problems is a massive task. Putting programs in place so people know who to contact: a hotline to call, a manager to speak to, a compliance officer to report issues to, will help make this accessible for staff and others who may have concerns.


The situation was further complicated by the timing of this outbreak, days before Lunar New Year, the biggest festival in the Chinese calendar. Like U.S. Thanksgiving, this is a time when nearly all Chinese families travel and celebrate together. This situation is even more pronounced in China where hundreds of millions have relocated from the countryside to the cities in search of work and this holiday may be the only time in the calendar year they spend with their husbands and wives, children and parents. Nobody wants to be the official who 'cancels the celebrations'. Global organisations facing product recalls, factory closures, price increases or ethical compliance investigations need to recognize how their actions and communications will be interpreted in the wider context and the challenge timing throws up. Remember ex-BP head honcho Tony Hayward at a sailing regatta days after the Deepwater Oil Spill testily demanding reporters 'give him his life back.' It can equally be tempting in a crisis situation to head into a 'War Room' and 'Bunker' mentality - isolated from everything else to focus on the issue in hand - but successful reputation management isn't about ignoring the outside, its about shaping and responding to it and seeing the challenge from customers, residents and others perspective too.


As the Virus spreads, so do the challenges. The Chinese state is probably the largest bureaucracy in the World. In a system which is centrally controlled and planned, one can only imagine how many approvals are required to get an 'issues warning' from a 'wet food' market in Wuhan to the head of the Communist Party in Beijing. The impact of this crisis also has huge ramification well beyond public health in China's provinces. Workers are not in the factories, the world's workshop is closed, global trade is slowing,the stock market is stumbling, other nations are grounding their planes and recalling their citizens, China is being quarantined from the world and the global economy. Crisis Management is as much about preparedness as it is response. Did the Chinese authorities have the systems and networks in place to keep their key partners, customers and business leaders informed of the facts, the risks, the crisis plan etc? As global organisations know, keeping the business going while dealing with the situation is a key concern and requires clear, timely and trusted engagement and communication between parties. Suppliers have dedicated contacts in your business, customers use social media to follow your brands, regulators talk to lobbyists and trade associations and the stock market listens to the CEO. Perhaps just as importantly but often neglected - friends and family quiz employees about 'what's going on'. Having systems in place to have "the right people, share the right messages, at the right time, in the right place" is a mammoth task and can't be satisfactorily done 'on the hoof' in the middle of a breaking crisis. Good Crisis Management is a 24/7 365 operation to update and refresh scenarios and plans.

Disraeli was right - Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best!

If you would like to review your Crisis Management Communications Plans please get in touch. DM me or email

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