COVID-19: Four essential crisis management lessons

06 February, 2020

Mel Butler Melanie Butler
Partner, PwC's Global Crisis Centre, PwC United Kingdom
Jiang Suwei Suwei Jiang
Partner, China Business Group, PwC United Kingdom

The COVID-19 outbreak has been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization. For now, the focus in China and beyond has been, rightly, on the immediate medical response and limiting the capacity for the virus to spread. But there may also be wider economic consequences, for China and for the many international businesses with operations there. People are displaced, the movement of goods restricted or suspended, and supply chains disrupted.

There are huge efforts being made across the world to contain COVID-19. The virus could be successfully contained in a relatively short space of time but even if it is, it will leave a long tail of implications for businesses to manage. Crises of any form are rarely isolated and contained – they tend to unfold in unpredictable peaks and troughs – and that’s why COVID-19 should focus the minds of business leaders across the globe.

Managing crisis is a fact of business life. 69% of participants in our 2019 Global Crisis Survey have experienced at least one crisis in the past five years and 95% expect to face one in future. It’s not a matter of whether a crisis will hit, but when – and whether a business survives intact is directly related to how well it’s prepared.

The COVID-19 outbreak presents specific potential business challenges around people and commercial operations (we’ll talk more about supply chain challenges in a separate blog). On an operational level, restrictions on employee movement creates immediate challenges, but the impact of the fear factor on the workforce (and potentially on the reputation of the business if it’s directly affected) is equally relevant. In both cases, timely and effective communication – with both internal and external stakeholders – is absolutely critical. So what should business leaders be considering in light of COVID-19?

There are four critical points to make:


Put your crisis and business continuity plans to the test. Most businesses will have crisis/incident and business continuity plans – and every business should. Regularly stress testing these is essential. COVID-19 has already revealed flaws in some plans, make sure that’s not the case for yours. 


Create a strong, cross-function response team. A crisis like COVID-19 can have an impact on every part of the business. The response can demands high-level sponsorship and cross-functional working. We recommend a core team overseen by the CEO (usually drawn from HR, legal and comms, but every company is different) to provide the framework and strategic guidance, supported by an extended team to address the specific actions needed to get through the crisis.


Focus on data. Reliable data underpins both crisis planning and response. PwC's 2019 Global Crisis Survey found that three-quarters of those in a better place post-crisis strongly recognise the importance of establishing facts accurately during the crisis. It’s essential that the crisis plan outlines how information will flow and that everyone has confidence in its veracity. Strong data also reinforces a central element of crisis planning – exploring different scenarios and how they could affect the business in the short, medium and long term.


Keep your people and working environment safe. The ongoing situation with COVID-19 means that employees, or the potentially impacted communities they work in, will be looking to your organisation for a response, guidance and regular communications. Review your travel rules, HR policies, first aid plans and create safe ways to exercise the arrangements. The working environment should also be considered so that you can continue to provide a safe place for employees and visitors to work as intended.

In our experience, the response window for a crisis is typically measured in months, while recovery is measured in years. But a crisis doesn’t necessarily mean disaster. An incident managed well allows you to develop your immune system, enabling you to take on riskier opportunities, with the confidence that future threats will be spotted and addressed quickly. That’s the key to sustainable competitive advantage.

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Dave Stainback

Dave Stainback

Global Crisis & Resilience Co-Leader, PwC United States

Tel: +1 678 419 1355

Bobbie Ramsden-Knowles

Bobbie Ramsden-Knowles

Global Crisis & Resilience Co-Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7483 422701