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By Jerry Zhu
As millions headed home for the Chinese New Year in late January, Jerry Zhu, partner and GM of Allison+Partners' China operation braced himself for what had the potential to be the most challenging time in his more than 25-year professional experience. With his teams in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu now back in the office, albeit on a staggered schedule and mandated distancing, he shares some of his insights from this experience.
This piece has been translated from the original, previously published Chinese version.
In March 2015, Bill Gates said in a TED speech that our greatest current threat is a large-scale pandemic, not a nuclear war. The challenge we face is not that our defense system is not strong enough, but that we actually do not have one.
This speech, delivered five years ago, showed great foresight.
When we witnessed the Ebola outbreak in Africa, we may have rationalized it as far away from home. When we heard about the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the Zika virus and avian influenza, we also dismissed them as having no impact on us. Although we in China experienced the SARS epidemic 17 years ago, memories of the events have already become distant and indifference set in as many chose to forget.
Because of this forgetfulness and indifference, our epidemic prevention system was caught unprepared and overwhelmed when COVID-19 broke out.
Past experiences, if not forgotten, can serve as an important a guide for the future. Although we remain in the midst of the pandemic, which grows worse globally, it has already provided many lessons and experiences worth pondering.
Listen to science and experts
Medicine and epidemic prevention are highly specialized scientific fields. Listening to the opinions of experts and professionals is absolutely paramount to avoid arriving at incorrect conclusions and making uninformed decisions.
Trust is key
At critical moments, people will trust the authorities only if all operations are transparent. A pandemic does not cause panic and confusion – a lack of trust does.
It is foolish to believe bad things will never come to us; a certain level of vigilance is important. Many companies have their crisis management systems in place, and the same should be true for epidemic prevention.
Prepare emergency plans
No one can foresee a crisis, and no one can make all the right judgments at the very beginning. As the Chinese saying goes, "You need to bear 10 years of hard work to enjoy your one minute on the stage." Although each crisis is unique, there are also similarities in their history, their impact and in the response measures taken against them. Therefore, we must take full advantage of “peacetime” to mobilize the strength of all parties and brainstorm emergency plans.
The emergency plan will not work if it is only on paper. Just like the military, if you do not train or practice during peacetime, you will be unprepared for active combat on the battlefield.
Respect the power of public opinion
In the age of social media, the dissemination of information is quick and convenient, which is both a virtue and a curse. Although public opinion may sometimes seem extreme, it can also serve as a means to monitor the effectiveness of governmental operations. We can only guide public opinion – we cannot stop it.
Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. We need to create a new system rather than sticking to set specifications for the selection and supervision of officials, so the top talent can assume important positions and form a stronger team.
Mobilize all forces to join hands
In the face of crisis, it is neither realistic nor efficient to take on everything alone. The related organizations may not only lack of expertise, but also perform well due to self-interest and intention to hold the power.
Learning from experience can prevent the recurrence of crises
The epidemic will come to an end sooner or later. But when it is over, if we only praise the achievements, we lose the important opportunity for reflection the disaster has given us.
A confident China should accept both enthusiastic praise and be able to withstand sincere criticism, and the same is true of other governments around the world.
Always be optimistic
No matter how grim the situation seems, Chinese people are always kind and hardworking. We are not short of brave and dedicated experts, media personnel, medical workers and civil servants at every level who are willing to take the lead.
This is true for countries and even more so for businesses. Any enterprise may face crises, both in operations and communication.
For example, during this outbreak we have seen the educational institutions with online teaching capabilities are not only able to withstand the crisis, but are becoming bigger and stronger. However, the institutions that only have offline capabilities have been hit hard. This is a risk and crisis in business operations.
Just as we need strong epidemic-prevention measures, enterprises ought to create their own comprehensive crisis management system. They need to prepare by implementing measures, such as establishing crisis management teams, conducting simulation exercises, preparing crisis plans and organizing training speakers. Only in this way can we be methodical in resolving a crisis, withstand any difficulties that may arise and create a brand that can last centuries.
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Jerry Zhu is a partner with the agency and oversees business operations, growth and client service for all of China, fostering expansion throughout Asia Pacific and around the world. He is a recognized expert in corporate communications, with experience in crisis management, public affairs, B2B and technology.