Paul Holmes 24 Mar 2020 // 4:15PM GMT
These are dark times.
The world at large is struggling to cope with a global pandemic the likes of which few of us have ever seen. The business world is figuring out its role in protecting employees and providing for customers and communities, while dealing with massive disruption and the likelihood of a prolonged recession. And public relations professionals are dealing with the demand for critical communications—reassuring employees, providing fast and accurate healthcare information, managing through a massive crisis.
There’s very little time to focus on what the aftermath will look like, or to imagine the kind of role communications might have as we recover—economically and socially—from such a devastating period. Never has it been more difficult to see (or even think about) the opportunity that cliché says accompanies every crisis.
And yet there are reasons to believe that some good might come of this, the we might emerge less divided, less prone to hasty judgments and preconceived biases, and more committed to building something better than what came before. In ensuring that institutions are there to serve and protect people, rather than viewing people as a resource or a market to be exploited.
And if we are to emerge stronger, public relations professionals will have a role to play. Here are four key ways in which we should be thinking about our role in making a post-coronavirus world a stronger, better place.
Restoring Trust in Objective Media
The role played in this crisis by the objective media—actual news outlets with trained reporters—has the potential to restore a little of the faith Americans and others have lost in recent years. Mainstream news outlets such as CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times provided an early warning system—sadly ignored by many—on the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak.
In its “United States of Anxiety” research, public affairs giant APCO Worldwide found that 58% of Americans said national news media was their leading source of information on the Covid-19 outbreak—more than twice as many as cited either the CDC (28%) or social media (27%)—or the White House (10%).
Presumably some of those Americans are still getting their news from Fox—the one network that ignored the looming crisis, or portrayed it as a hoax designed to discredit the president—but hopefully the vast majority are tuning into other networks, or using the online sites of traditional print media—all of which have provided accurate and trustworthy information since the early days of the crisis, and continue to do so today.
Meanwhile, social media has continued to serve as an outlet for fake news about Covid-19. As this Vanity Fair article explains, “bots on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere are sharing stories meant to cause more confusion and chaos—pushing that this is a hoax, or a bioweapon, or that it originated from ‘people eating bat soup.’” WhatsApp users, meanwhile, have been receiving text messages pitching fake coronavirus cures.
At a time when information can save lives—and misinformation can kill—people are turning to traditional, objective media. Perhaps they will remember the difference between unsubstantiated rumor and fact-checked reporting when the crisis is over.
Valuing Expert Knowledge
Most of the accurate information provided by mainstream media outlets in the early days of the crisis came from experts, and more specifically scientific experts—another group that has been derided by critics who stand to benefit either politically or commercially from sowing doubt and distrust.
And as the crisis has taken center-stage in America, the individual who has emerged as the “trusted voice in separating fact from fiction” is not a politician, but a lifelong scientist and public health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
His honesty—including bluntly correcting President Trump’s most outrageous fictions—has not surprisingly won him the support of Democrats. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told The Washington Post, “It’s a shame that at the first hint of this we didn’t just say to Tony Fauci, ‘You’re in charge, you have all the power you need, tell us what needs to be done.’”
But he has also, despite his honesty and obvious expertise, retained the trust of the administration: “The president has been very impressed by what he’s heard from Dr. Fauci,” says Kellyanne Conway, a senior counselor to the president. “He does like him personally. He respects him professionally.”
And there is some evidence that trust in expertise extends beyond a single individual. A special report of the Edelman Trust Barometer found that scientists and doctors are the most trusted sources of information, along with officials from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control (scores range from 68%-83%).
Whether it will extend to other issues—climate change, the anti-vaccine movement—remains to be seen.
Making Capitalism Better
It has been apparent for some time that capitalism—particularly as practiced in the Anglo-Saxon countries—is in need of some running repairs.
Last year, the Business Roundtable rethought, for the first time in 22 years, the purpose of the corporation, coming to the overdue conclusion that successful, sustainable businesses must serve the interests of multiple stakeholders, including employees, customers and communities as well as shareholders.
The topic was hotly debated at Davos earlier this year, with the influence of disparate figures such as teenage activist Greta Thunberg and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink driving a discussion that seemed to go beyond the usual empty promises to focus on practical solutions.
The early days of the coronavirus suggest that in some ways, we are all socialists now. Around the world, people—and corporations—are turning to governments to protect communities from a large-scale pandemic and also to pay the wages of people laid off or furloughed by their private sector employers.
One aspect of modern capitalism that is certainly worth closer scrutiny when the crisis ends is the way the system encourages companies to squander their profits on stock buybacks, shareholder dividends and executive compensation, rather than either sharing them with employees or putting cash aside for a crisis such as this one.
Airlines have been enjoying a 10-year run of profitable operations. Delta’s profits for each of the past five years were $4.8 billion, $3.9 billion, $3.2 billion, $4.2 billion, and $4.5 billion—that’s a total of more than $20 billion, for one of the big four US airlines, who are now asking for a $50 billion bailout.
Those airlines spent 96% of free cashflow over the last decade to buy back shares of their own stock in order to boost executive bonuses and please investors. Had airline CEOs done otherwise, as Slate points out, “They risked the ire of activist investors who saw cash as ‘unproductive capital.’”
Surely, after this, we have to rethink a system that punishes common sense preparedness and rewards reckless self-enrichment?
Companies Can Show True Purpose
When all those CEOs gathered in Davos earlier this year, were they serious about business having a purpose beyond being a profit engine? Were they sincere when they talked about the way companies could help solve societal problems? If they were, there has never been a better time to prove it, and if you believe in the critical importance of stakeholder relationships, those that step up now will benefit in the long term.
And there are signs that many companies are trying to do the right thing.
Take Wegmans, for example, the US supermarket chain that consistently tops corporate reputation rankings and best places to work surveys. The company is giving 98% of its employees a $2 an hour raise for March and April. Says Colleen Wegman, “We are inspired by the ways our customers and employees are working together through this difficult time.” At a time when many American workers are suffering layoffs or furloughs, that’s a welcome gesture. (Target has said it too will increase pay by $2 an hour.)
A host of companies in hard-hit Washington state, led by Microsoft and Amazon, have created the COVID-19 Response Fund. Along with other businesses such as Alaska Airlines and the Starbucks Foundation, they have donated $2.5 million so far. Says Microsoft president Brad Smith: “As large corporations, we can take this step and should. But not all businesses will be able to do so. As our community focuses on public health needs during the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s important that we also rally together to address the unmet economic needs developing around us.”
French luxury brand LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Dom Pérignon and more, has converted factories that usually produce perfume and make-up so that they now produce hand-sanitizer.
Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has donated 1.1 million testing kits, 6 million masks, and 60,000 protective suits and face shields to Africa through his foundation. They have been sent to Ethiopia and will be distributed from there to every other country on the continent.
Unilever's CEO Alan Jope announced that the world's largest soap company was committed to providing free soap, sanitiser, bleach and food to the value of €100 million to communities around the world.
In the UK, meanwhile, food chains such as Leon, Nandos, Pret a Manger and Subway have been offering discounts on food or free coffee to medical workers. Skincare brand L’Occitane has been sending hand creams to hospitals to help soothe their hands. And pretty much every major supermarket chain has been opening early to allow an hour of shopping exclusively for the elderly and others most at risk of infection, as well as healthcare and other critical workers.
(Of course for every positive story, there’s at least one company out there looking to profit by putting people’s lives at risk.)
The Role of Public Relations
The public relations profession will have a leadership role to play in all of this.
Over the past few weeks we have seen corporate communicators and their agency colleagues rise to the challenge of informing their employees about the risks of the pandemic (the Edelman Trust Barometer that was launched in January showed that “my employer” was the most trusted institution for this kind of information). And we have seen them pivot to a world in which we are all crisis communicators, helping to keep employees safe, communities healthy, and companies up and running.
The recovery and aftermath of Covid-19 will be equally challenging for corporations and their communications experts. But public relations professionals can help both their employers and society as a whole as it comes back from the coronavirus.
If we are to emerge stronger, we will need to respect the media and the scientific process, practicing not only honestly, but with intellectual honesty, eschewing the tools we have used to tarnish the objective media upon whose credibility we rely for our own; refusing to muddy the scientific waters with obfuscation, self-serving rhetoric and deceptive statistics; prioritizing our obligation to public health and safety and to the truth.
We must also play a leading role within our organizations, encouraging CEOs and those around them to take a long-term view of the business, to put sustainability (of both the business and the planet) ahead of quarterly earnings, and showing them ways of balancing the interests of employees, customers and communities with those of senior executives and shareholders.
And we must ensure that the way our companies and clients communicate reflects their actual commitment to the issues and causes they claim to care about. We must under-promise and over-deliver against our environmental and social goals—reversing a decades long trend of earning public skepticism by doing the opposite.
Our profession can emerge stronger and more vital from this crisis only if we help companies to be better, more complete citizens.