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We are dealing with a crisis: COVID-19

Rashmi Dhanwani reflects on crisis management and a message for the arts community in the midst of the crisis.

“Crisis management is the process by which an organisation deals with a disruptive and unexpected event that threatens to harm the organisation or its stakeholders.”

- Bundy, Jonathan; Pfarrer, Michael D.; Short, Cole E.; Coombs, W. Timothy (2017)

On March 11, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, and calling to countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilise their people in the response (1). The declaration and response has already had devastating effects on the arts and cultures sector with cancellations. Estimates. For all practical purposes, this can be termed as a crisis for the art and culture sector work over. This is also about the time, panic might set in among artists, freelance professionals, cultural workers and arts organisations. And this is also where we step in and say:

Let’s figure out a way to deal with it.

So what impact can a crisis have on you and your work?

The Institute for Public Relations says, “In crisis management, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organisation, its stakeholders, and an industry. A crisis can create three related threats: (1) public safety, (2) financial loss, and (3) reputation loss.” The article goes on to highlight how effective crisis management handles the threats sequentially.

Let’s see how the arts sector has dealt with this crisis globally. In the case of COVID-19, many cultural organisations have ceased work, cancelled events and immediately deployed a series of mechanisms to ensure safety of audiences. This inevitably will have led to the second threat i.e. financial loss, with cancellations, loss of jobs and cash flow constraints, particularly for freelance cultural professionals, artists and small businesses. Reputation loss may occur as you may not be able to deliver to your clients as per agreed timelines, be critiqued for over-reaction (such as cancellation of events and projects, or in the case of Royal College of Art, UK, where students slammed Royal College of Art's decision to move degree show online because of coronavirus) or if any of your stakeholders (audiences, employees) catches the virus because of your inaction on public safety (such as when the Turkish Government was criticised for crowds at heritage sites as ticket collector reportedly dies from coronavirus last week). However, by and large, cultural organisations have taken cognisance of this crisis and put public safety on priority dealing with this threat as best as they can and in line with government notifications on closures and lockdowns. There are several case studies of how to deal with a crisis. Here’s one from Reema Kassem on Governance during Crisis: A case study from Egypt.

At this stage, though, the biggest thread still seems to be the impending financial loss faced by an already vulnerable sector, particularly in India. In response, we at ACRI, suggest a three-phased crisis management approach relating to financial loss:

Phase 1: Short-Term

In the short-term, you need to focus on three key areas: a) public safety; b) financial survival; clear communication. Firstly, you need to step back to ensure your key stakeholders are safe from a public safety perspective. For this you may have to first list down your key stakeholders. Examples include, audiences, employees, funders, donors, clients etc. You then need to detail out what steps can you take to ensure safety for each stakeholder. For instance, how can you reduce or cease contact exposure for those stakeholders you are in most physical contact with, such as audiences and employees? Can you cancel your events? Can your employees work from home? Next, determine what impact will this have on your work? Are your contracts going to be under thread? Will your clients pull out? Will your jobs be cancelled? Determine financial impact of this on your pipeline, and reach out to all your clients about these possible cancellations. Ask and request for advances where possible. Ensure that you have expenses and cash flow for at least three months in your bank account. Lastly, ensure clear communication. It is said that the best thing to do in crisis is over-communicate. Ensure that you send out your letters, notifications about your decisions to your key stakeholders and detail out resources and tools for them to reach you or access your work.

This phase should last between 1-2 weeks, and most of us have passed this phase. See here for resources and templates on event cancellations, postponements, webinars, digital methods, public information.

Phase 2: Mid-Term

In the medium-term, you need to look at how your way of working and your projects are likely to change over the next 3-6 months. For this, look at these two steps: a) How are you changing the way you work: work from home, digital project management tools, deeper online engagement as examples; and b) Pivoting or remodelling whatever what work you can to areas and spaces that are safe, e.g.: online.

In all likelihood, you, your employees and clients will be working from home for the next few months. What does this mean in terms of effective work and productivity management? How does the pandemic and its impact affect your and your employees’ or partners’ mental health? (Head over to our ‘INTERNAL’ section of this page for more details on this. In the arts, human resource is the most critical resource, so be mindful of how this impacts your most important stakeholder. Secondly, look at how this impacts your projects while aligned to public safety. Here we suggest using the remodelling approach, which entails looking at all sides of your problem and working a way around it step-by-step, while eliminating what compromises the key solution e.g. public safety. For instance, we had worked with British Council on their Festival Connections series which were supposed to be speaker sessions and panel discussions in four cities. We realised physical events will be detrimental to public safety. So we were then faced with two options: postponement or cancellation. Both these options would either lead to extra work or wastage of effort. We then asked ourselves: does this event have the potential to be moved to digital… which means we can continue to hold it instead of postponing or cancelling. If we do move to digital, how do we ensure maximum engagement?

Phase 3: Long-Term

While the wide-spread lockdown and attention of governments towards the health crisis might help it be contained in the short term, experts say that it may leave a long trail of impact to be managed by businesses and economies. While global consulting firms such as PriceWaterhouse Coopers have put out articles on how to deal with business impacts of COVID19 and McKinsey & Company on leadership challenges, there are few resources out there for arts organisations, the creative sector and the individual creator for pivoting and growing in the post-Corona world. How can you think of productivity, while at the same time a productive reformatting of your work? For the long-term, it’s perhaps better to look at these three focus areas: a) Gather sector intelligence; b) Develop a business or a work-continuity plan; c) Respond to the times: reconciling your work with what your stage, your audience and your stakeholders need, want and care about; d) Stay updated and provide regular updates on COVID-19: this is a long-term health crisis, so public safety continues to be important.

This is an unprecedented situation and it’s likely to change and evolve. A crucial aspect of navigating is going to be understanding how your peers, colleagues, related businesses and sectors are dealing with this situation and emerging from it. Sector intelligence, access to data and communities working to help and manage impact on your communities is going to be crucial to understanding long-term growth and survival for you and your sector. Secondly, you need to look at the potential new revenue streams that can emerge from such a crisis. For instance, while the events sector has shot down, there’s a boom in sales of services of internet companies. Could you look at your own sector and your own strengths and delineate which areas of your work are transferable? If you are an artist and have given physical workshops, can you pivot to digital platforms? While at it, it would help to create a business or work continuity plan. Look at this IBM article for more.

It is equally crucial to think about what the need of the hour is and is going to be for the next two years. The core of our work in the arts has been direct interaction with the audience. Those in the marked research space have reason to believe that the impact of COVID-19 on people’s behaviors and attitudes will be long-lasting, including “remote” behaviours to avoid being in public spaces. The key heer would be reframing out work in a way to see this as an opportunity to find new ways of creating deeper engagement with the audience. What might that be? We don’t know yet, but who better than artists and the creatives to forecast a future for us all?

Lastly, bringing it back to square 1: public safety. This doesn’t seem to be a short-term crisis. Countries, economies and individuals for months to come are going to be wary. Therefore, health and safety must continue to eb our prime focus and responsibility as the core of what we do.

In sum, take a deep breath and trust the community. We’ll rally around to support each other, but seeking that help and helping yourself is going to be key. So, to sign off… the last three signposts to think about: Reflect; Realign your strategy and Reboot your approach. You are not alone.


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