(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE NASHVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL)
They say ignorance is bliss. As the COVID-19 situation evolves, many of us find ourselves wishing for unknowing bliss we knew just a few weeks ago.
Little did any of us know that this virus would have Americans hunkered down at home for weeks on end, with major events canceled and schools out for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), as early as a few weeks ago, my company was starting to get a close-up preview to what might be coming our way through our PRGN partners, which is a collective of more than 50 hand-selected public relations firms spanning six continents. With PR leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities across key cities throughout the world, we had a front-row seat for what was happening in China, Italy and even Washington state before COVID-19 made its unfortunate and unwanted debut in Tennessee.
As agency owners shared what they were seeing with their clients and in their cities, the severity of the situation became apparent quickly. As a business owner, I experienced mixed emotions. While it was alarming to hear the financial impact from peers, I was grateful for the lead time, albeit brief, that allowed us to ensure our clients had updated crisis communications plans in place.
It has also been encouraging to lean on business owners in cities that were dealing with COVID-19 before it hit Nashville. As we all know, this pandemic is changing daily, and a business owner who has been living this for even one week longer than we have can provide invaluable expertise.
For example, while chatting with Aaron Blank, owner of The Fearey Group in Seattle, he reminded me of the importance of a quiet place to think. For him, his jacuzzi is a place where he can creatively and safely think about the status of both his business and their clients without distraction. This quiet time led to his spearheading BusinessSavingBusiness.com to bring together business owners (virtually, of course, because of social distancing) who are currently faced with tough decisions.
Your message matters.
How we act and appear to the world now has the potential to impact our brand for years to come — good or bad. Especially now, your message matters, both from you as a leader and your brand voice. Leaders set the standard for how others under their leadership behave. As we have all seen, fear is contagious, and your ability to keep calm and stay level-headed is critical.
Throughout all of this, three things have been obvious.
In times of crisis, saying the wrong thing can wreak havoc for your brand. Now is not the time for off-the-cuff remarks or emails. Be thoughtful and deliberate. In this age of social media, anything you say or write could end up on the web. Don’t be afraid to correct the record and set facts straight at any sign of misinformation.
As a business leader, you are living under a microscope right now. Employees, clients and vendors are all looking at you for clues and direction about what to expect. Everyone wants to know what is next in a time when that is impossible to predict.
True story: We rewrote an article for a client three times over the past week. As soon as it was approved, something changed. As a leader, I chose to roll with the punches and do it with a smile, showing my team the attitude that I expect. Why? Because I know being frustrated — especially in a business of our size — could have a nearly immediate domino effect, particularly in such uncertain times.
This is why having a go-to spot is critical. Find a place where you don’t have to be “on” and decompress. Mine is the running trails (six feet away from other runners, of course) or at home with my golden retriever puppy, who has yet to ask me one question about COVID-19 and the impact on our company.
If you’re asking employees to social distance, show them that you’re all in it together. Our company has set up a Marco Polo group to ensure we don’t lose the day-to-day camaraderie. Rumor has it we have some virtual happy hours on tap and maybe even a group online workout coming up.
This is also not the time to post on social media about your amazing travels (even if the pics are pre-pandemic) or to get overly political online.
Work the plan — but be nimble and never be opportunistic.
The point of contingency plans is to have them before you need them. If you don’t already have a business continuity plan and communications plan, at a minimum, do some “what if” scenarios with your leadership team. It’s OK for plans to change and evolve. The key to success is how we communicate those changes.
Depending on the industry or message, now may not be the time to launch that new product or promotion. When uncertainty is prevalent, your key audiences probably aren’t as likely to pay attention or act. Stay agile.
Most importantly, stay resilient. Nashville is a city of creative and resourceful people. How we do business and take care of our employees through these unprecedented times are what people will remember.