There is no more business as usual. Our time periods are now BC-19 (Before Covid-19) and AC-19 (After Covid-19). Our world will slot into those periods as it continues to change at pace and there's a very long way to go before we arrive in AC-19. Saving lives is the right priority and, for those who have one, that means staying home. But while we’re at home, we have a responsibility to think — and think hard about what's next.
The economic and social consequences of the pandemic are far reaching and will be long lasting. We are all finding ways to help our organisations and communities deal with the immediate situation and work out what will constitute the new normal. What will your business, organisation, government — and country — look like in the next three to five years?
It certainly won't operate in the same way organisations have operated for the last 100 years. Where sector capacity has been reduced, for example air travel, it will take time to reinstate that capacity when confidence returns and demand grows — or it may be that both appetite and trust for large volume global travel is reduced so the industry must completely reinvent itself or disappear, a relic of a former age. So too with your own business or activity. None of us are immune. What is it you do now that could be done differently? If you mark today as the first day of the new normal what must you do? What has to be different? What creative approaches do you need to take in order to meet changing demands and needs? What is our new normal going to look like? And in getting there, how will we navigate the change and stay off the rocks?
Our evolution depends on two central relationship elements - trust and confidence. Societal trust and confidence is already shaken and, as we attempt to 'flatten the curve' of transmission, what are we doing to smooth the 'curve of confidence' (illustrated above) so, when people recover and start to gather again, they trust in the society and institutions that emerge from this unprecedented event? As COVID-19 progresses and the case curve flattens, another downward curve occurs as people lose confidence and trust in society, its institutions and organisations. Smoothing the curve upwards will be a work in progress that must continue long after the pandemic has moved through its stages and diminished. The world that emerges will not be the same world that was operating on December 31 2019 or even the world that began when the pandemic was announced. It will be a new world, with a new normal, operating in new and uncertain times. Collectively we will need to reimagine and create that normality for the benefit of all.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a redefining moment for the world. Spread of the disease has been fast and furious and given the rapidity of transmission in the three months since it emerged, we now face lengthy disruptions, with societal, economic and political consequences lasting much longer. Advice from WHO on March 7 2020 in the 'Critical preparedness, readiness and response actions for COVID-19 interim guidance' was as follows:
"Several countries have demonstrated that COVID-19 transmission from one person to another can be slowed or stopped. These actions have saved lives and have provided the rest of the world with more time to prepare for the arrival of COVID-19: to ready emergency response systems; to increase capacity to detect and care for patients; to ensure hospitals have the space, supplies and necessary personnel; and to develop life-saving medical interventions. Every country should urgently take all necessary measures to slow further spread and to avoid that their health systems become overwhelmed due to seriously ill patients with COVID-19. All countries should increase their level of preparedness,alert and response to identify, manage and care for new cases of COVID-19. Countries should prepare to respond to different public health scenarios, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing cases and outbreaks of COVID-19. Each country should assess its risk and rapidly implement the necessary measures at the appropriate scale to reduce both COVID-19 transmission and economic, public and social impacts.”
That was the beginning of March and here we are at the end with some countries failing spectacularly to take the necessary actions to reduce transmission and save lives even though it was in their power to do so. In many places, there has been a failure to recognise risk, acknowledge the problem and act, in others a desperate attempt to cling to old systems that just won't work anymore.
As a trusted public relations and communications advisor to your organisation, you must deal not only with the immediate circumstances but with what's ahead, helping others acknowledge how different life will be. You need to consider the scenarios likely to result from the pandemic and advise on preparedness and potential effects. Never before have borders been closed so promptly, trade and commerce interrupted, countries shut down, freedom of movement restricted or curtailed, citizens surveilled, recorded and monitored. Trillions will be spent helping people to weather the crisis but the reality is that many of the systems we have become accustomed to will disappear and new societal norms will emerge. There will be a process of grief and loss for individuals and their communities.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, was recently quoted as saying: “Some countries have not been communicating well with their populations and creating some confusions in the minds of the populations and risk communication,” adding that “trust between governments and their citizens really does need to come to the centre.”
As public relations and communication professionals, trust is our business, a central factor of the relationships we build. This is our concern and our occupation. How we rebuild societal trust after the first wave of the disease has passed will be a central issue not just for governments but for all types of organisations. Faith in established systems will need to be restored if indeed those systems remain standing. Equally telling will be the speed of reinstatement of freedoms withdrawn as part of preventative measures.
Capacity will have to be rebuilt and demand stimulated in a time of economic instability, financial and emotional hardship along with distrust. We must start planning for the consequences while simultaneously dealing with the outbreak. Bringing contextual intelligence to your organisation is absolutely part of the public relations and communications function and, by addressing and preparing for probable scenarios, restoring stability and encouraging progress will be easier to manage.
Organisations, big and small, private and public sector are rightly concerned about the current situation. For many businesses, the simple question of 'will we make it through' is foremost in their minds as they see doors close for lockdowns, customers vanish, staff made redundant or having to stay at home. Small businesses are particularly at risk and the struggle to stay afloat will be too much for some. For millions of people, work has stopped, businesses have closed and life as they knew it is frozen. For public sector organisations, staffing and continued delivery of service is the challenge with healthcare and essential services being stretched to the limit.
Last year - 2019 - the Edelmen Trust Barometer, an annual research project that monitors and reports on levels of trust in society - announced that 'people have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers. Globally, 75 percent of people trust “my employer” to do what is right, significantly more than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent) and media (47 percent).'
So in this time of need, will that trust in employers be justified? Will employers step up and become the trusted organisation that people are looking for as other societal norms disintegrate? The answer is that some will - and some will not. My hope is that more will step up and act as responsible corporate citizens. Those that do will rely heavily on their social capital, good relationships and effective communication inside and outside their organisation.
Communicating clearly, often and to the right people at the right time will help nudge things forward. George Bernard Shaw's observation that "the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion it has taken place" is worth keeping in mind. It is easy to believe that because you've said something or sent something, everyone knows and understands perfectly. The reality is that even in ‘ordinary’ times people are often in an emotional state, not listening or only half listening, so they misinterpret the information. At present, that state is heightened and layered with many emotions - fear being the most intense. Classic example of this was the commentary on the day the World Health Organisation’s declared a pandemic. Social media posts (many of them) shared the information that 'WHO' had declared a pandemic. Comments were filled with confusion, the most frequent ones proclaiming "I don't know who has declared this - why are you asking me”. The simple abbreviation of the World Health Organisation's name had left people baffled.
I know that, like me, you won’t be surprised by this, yet still, communicators the world over are making assumptions that people know who's who, who's in charge, who's at risk, who to contact or what to do. We must constantly check the information we are sharing can be understood, is relevant, has meaning for our communities and is presented in language they understand. Whatever personal opinions are held, we must make sure that our information is based on available facts rather than opinions, perspectives and personal or political agendas.
Health professionals the world over are working tirelessly to help the sick, develop a vaccine, manage the pandemic and more besides. Others are keeping essential services running, filling the gaps caused by the monumental societal shift that’s occurring right now.
Our challenge — when we are staying at home as we should and not going out — is to work out the ways we will be operating next. What will society look like? How can we make it better? What can we do to contribute? What will our business or organisation do that will be of service to people? Real service, real need - not the fripperies driven by old school newly redundant marketing practices.
Those who have put the relationships critical to their licence to operate at the centre of their activities during BC-19 will be able to smooth the confidence and trust curves faster than most. We will come out of this knowing the things we can (and should) do without as well as a very clear idea as to the organisations and people we want to be with, work with and relate to — because their values are our values. Those who hold profit and power above people will be the dinosaurs of AC-19 as a new, innovative world emerges into air, sea and sky.
The big job in 2021/2 will be to rebuild trust - smooth the confidence curve - so people are willing to begin agin and more into AC19 physically and mentally. It will be a different world and will need human creativity, collaboration and compassion to rebuild.
Let's use this time wisely and figure out how we can make if fair, just and new.
Wherever you are in the world, I wish you well. Stay safe, stay kind, stay informed — and stay home.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.