Crisis Management Lessons from South Korea's Success Against COVID-19
As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, we're seeing the importance of good crisis management. When I first started writing this blog post, South Korea had the highest number of coronavirus cases outside of China. Now, South Korea's outbreak has slowed, and the world is focusing on how their government handled it.
After spending six years in the U.S., I returned to my home country of South Korea in December, so I've been here as a first-hand witness to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the government's response.
Let's talk about four key points of South Korea's successful crisis management.
1. Be Proactive
It can seem pointless to prepare for something that may not happen, but in reality, failure to prepare can cause bigger problems and cost more money and time when a crisis occurs. Remember, crisis management starts from being PROACTIVE. Think ahead.
The South Korean government began preparing for a potential strain of coronavirus as early as November 2019. After going through the MERS outbreak, Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) tested any type of coronavirus to figure out what virus would hit the country next. Technically, South Korea anticipated the COVID-19 outbreak before it happened and conducted emergency drills every year. They have built a protocol and trained themselves for this kind of crisis. This helped South Korea tremendously and now they're seeing the benefits of this preparation.
2. Identify the Control Tower
When a crisis happens, it's important to know who's in charge. In general, but certainly in times of crisis, your audience - whether that means your employees or the general public - craves leadership. It is especially important in a time of crisis to identify a control tower and specify responsibilities.
After a couple of crises during the last government, South Korea has learned how crucial the role of a pan-governmental control tower is during a crisis. As soon as the coronavirus outbreak began, South Korea's government appointed KCDC to be the control tower. Then, the government entrusted the outbreak with the KCDC and supported them in various ways. This reduces unnecessary briefings and also let the experts who know best how to handle the crisis.
3. Act Fast and KUTD (Keep up to date)
Despite being proactive, both expected and unexpected crisis will happen. If you have not been proactive and don't have any crisis management plan, it's not too late. First, you must take prompt action and keep your audience up to date. Your audience wants to know what's going on and how you are handling this situation in real time. Waiting to act will only make the situation worse.
When there was the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Korea, the government responded right away, which was possible because they were prepared.
The government sends out emergency alerts about coronavirus cases nearby as soon as possible. The alerts include the patient's whereabouts so that people who may have contacted the patient or been in the same place can be tested before infecting others without knowing that they have the virus. KCDC also held two briefings everyday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. using every media outlet to keep everyone up to date.
4. Transparency is the Key
We are living in a connected world where everyone can easily research and get information. It is almost impossible to perfectly hide something these days. Spending time and effort to portray the crisis as less serious than it is only breeds mistrust.
From the beginning, South Korea implemented mass-scale testing, and the government disclosed the REAL number of the cases, to the entire population. The government was mindful of the cases without any symptoms and tried to catch them as soon as possible, even if that would increase the number of the confirmed cases. It looked like the cases were rapidly increasing, but it was actually the result of the government's raid detection of the virus. South Korea's government was not afraid of increasing the numbers. They prioritized citizen's lives and handled it transparently. Despite the high rate of infection, people acted calmly and followed government's instruction - because they trust what their government tells them. This was possible because of the government's transparency. Now the world is praising South Korea's consistent and transparent messaging throughout the crisis and people in other countries are asking their governments to do the same.