Crisis is the catalyst of good intentions

Written by Chris Doggart, VP, Client Success at GPJ

Last week I spoke to C&IT about how to manage a crisis.

Before I go any further, serious as this is for our industry, the personal impact on those directly touched by Covid-19 is far worse and we send our thoughts and best wishes to all those affected by and working to solve, the human tragedy of this crisis.

I do not claim to be an expert in Crisis Management. Those who are experts … (Masters degrees in Crisis Management are available for those who are looking to up-skill whilst on furlough) … these experts will advise that “the key to successfully navigating a crisis is preparedness, a fact based approach and communication”.

To start on a positive note, a PWC report in 2019, long before covid_19 or the “Pivot Virus” struck, found that only 19% of businesses who experienced a crisis said they were worse off post-crisis, with 42% actually claiming to be a better business after the crisis. A reason to be optimistic? Perhaps, but let’s remember none of those surveyed are likely to have experienced something of this magnitude and PWC only surveyed those companies that survived.

Covid 19 is different to anything we have experienced before and the way we have had to deal with it has been different too (not always in a bad way).  At the moment the industry is in survival mode. The good news is this crisis has highlighted the value of human face to face gatherings and, unlike the employees of Kodak struggling to smile for their first selfie, I do not believe our industry is doomed.

As a global business with offices in China, Singapore, Japan, Korea & Hong Kong, we witnessed the impact of Covid 19 as it worked its way across the world.

In Europe, Mobile World Congress was one of the first major events to be impacted.  GPJ produce the Innovation City for the organisers of MWC and we saw first hand the challenges event organisers wrestle with. MWC was under the global spotlight and it was the first in line … but as time has gone on and more events have been cancelled, postponed or re-imagined, precedents have been set and organisers can learn from the lessons of others.  The financial impact will be no less significant, but the shock and the drama have been removed from the inevitable announcements that followed making it easier to manage. There are benefits of all being in this together.

On March 13th, our global CEO held a company wide conference call to address the concerns of the staff impacted by these cancellations. The tone was authentic, honest, transparent and resolute, there was no bravado or overly positive corporate spin, Bob spoke from the heart.   From the start we have followed the tone set at this across our offices and departments and tried to over index on communication.

There is a hunger for knowledge both in our professional and personal lives, Call the Midwife even dropped to 5th in March’s BBC ratings below 4 news related programmes. Hard as we try the demand for information will almost certainly out strip supply so the tone has been equally as important as we aim to … “talk to people like they are people”. Now is not the time for pompous formality, we work hard to listen effectively then speak honestly and openly.

On Monday 16th March we all started working from home and have been ever since.  Thankfully the events industry has been in training for years to be able to work remotely from anywhere in the world.  This has helped us but has not been the case for every industry.

Preparedness, we are told, will help us in a crisis.  That’s not much use now that we are in the eye of the storm but it is true the process of creating and maintaining our business continuity plan was useful… to a point.  When contemplating risk it is nigh on impossible for us to imagine the unimaginable and even JK Rowling herself would have struggled to conceive this one.

There is no stigma to this struggle

Whilst live events are simply not possible, the effect on the businesses and individuals involved cannot be underestimated. But whereas normally a crisis might result in a self centred response, with everyone heading for the hills and distancing themselves from the problem … with Covid-19 there is no getting away from it and the government support has fortunately been unprecedented, though not perfect. There is no stigma to this struggle, blame is replaced with huge amounts of support and sympathy for everyone affected. Clients are also more supportive and collaborative than ever before.

Look after the most important asset


From Day 1 our priority has been to protect our most important asset, our team, so that we can continue to achieve our clients goals. We fully expect that the event landscape post Covid will look different, but our faith in the value of face to face means we believe retaining our people will be vital for us to survive and rebuild once this is over.

We have taken advantage of the government’s job retention scheme and put a number of people on furlough, and are encouraged to see this extending to the end of June and hope the scheme will be there as long as it is needed. Clearly this is also hitting our suppliers & contractors hard and we were delighted to see some government support offered to them as well.

Our strategy is not set in stone, it can’t be, we need to be nimble and adjust to the ever shifting landscape.  We make the best decisions we can with the information we have. The scholars advise that in addition to preparedness and communication, the third key is to have a fact based approach. Challenging when perceived wisdom changes day to day and the facts behind the headlines and the promises are often hard to find or simply not there.

Be decisive and consistent

We have tried to make the right decision importantly at the right time, not jumping to knee jerk responses but being decisive and consistent with the decisions when the moment is right.  God knows what version of the scenario plan we are up to now but we continue to evolve and evaluate our strategy and always avoiding the temptation to try to be experts expressing opinions we are not qualified to give. Retaining our clients trust and confidence post covid will be vital to our survival and recovery.

Continue to solve clients challenges


So what does the future hold for us? In reality nobody knows but our approach is to continue to do what we have been doing for over 100 years – solving our clients’ business challenges, ensuring they engage their audience in the most effective way possible.

It just so happens that some of the parameters have changed but the fundamental reasons why clients come to agencies like us has not.  I appreciate this may not be the case for others, some businesses depend on large gatherings and until that is possible they will be hard hit.  We are known for producing large scale events with thousands of people but smaller local gatherings and engaging remote audiences has always been part of the mix.

Our first virtual event was in 2008 and we are currently helping many clients to grapple with, what for them, is an unfamiliar world. Thankfully the process remains the same and therefore should not be too daunting.

We have a business challenge … that requires audience insights… resulting in a creative solution underpinned by operational excellence.  As the landscape evolves so too will our solutions but our knowledge and experience of helping clients deliver business value will help us to survive.

Look to parallel sectors for recovery patterns


The long term impact on experience marketing rests on whether audiences perceive this as a “one off unique situation” or something that is likely to reoccur in the short to medium term.

We are looking to the sporting world as a bellwether for recovery. It was one of the industry sectors that resisted the pandemic longest and it may well be the first to recover.  When we see people prepared to return to the terraces is when we know we will be able to plan professional mass gatherings with confidence.

Crisis is the catalyst of good intentions


The old adage claims that “necessity is the mother of all invention”, what we are seeing here is that “crisis is the catalyst of good intentions”.  Everything we have been talking about and intending to do for years is now being accelerated, prioritised and delivered.  It is this dynamic productivity in adversity that will see a stronger industry emerge post Covid.

We couldn’t have handled this without government support and as an industry we have struggled to engage and lobby government for many years.  We have seen the impact that a lack of international government collaboration has had on dealing with this global pandemic effectively. The need for a unified industry response has never seemed so urgent.

As a closing thought, perhaps this crisis will be the catalyst for this evolution in our industry and a stronger unified events sector can be the result of the pain and hardship we are currently facing, putting us in the 42% who will be better businesses post covid.