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The following is a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia, originally published on Forbes on October 19, 2021.

In mid-September the United States passed a tragic milestone: one in every 500 Americans had died of Covid-19. By early October, it was one in every 469 Americans. And counting …

For decades in my crisis management practice, I have preached that the severity of an underlying crisis does not determine how the crisis turns out. Two organizations in the same crisis at the same time can have dramatically different outcomes. Rather, the timeliness and quality of the response determine whether or not an organization suffers a catastrophic outcome. Act effectively and quickly and the crisis resolves or plays out with minimal damage. Delay or dither and things get disproportionately worse.

It is uncommon for multiple organizations to go through the same crisis simultaneously. But Covid-19 is a crisis with which every organization around the world has been grappling. We now have experienced a kind of laboratory experiment of how different jurisdictions responded to the pandemic differently. We can track the different outcomes. We can learn from them. And we can apply those lessons, not only in the continued pandemic response but in future crises, as well.

Crisis Management Works

All the trends point to a common conclusion: Crisis management works. But only when we manage the crisis effectively. Failing to follow crisis management principles can have devastating consequences. There are three rules that lead to the successful resolution of a crisis:

1. Take the crisis seriously.

2. Take the risks seriously.

3. Mitigate those risks.

We can see clearly how the death rates in different jurisdictions were different based on leaders’ adherence, or lack of adherence, to these rules.

A Tale Of Two Nations: Republic Of Korea And United States Of America

On January 20, 2020, the U.S. had its first confirmed Covid-19 case. That same day the first confirmed Covid-19 case was recorded in South Korea.

Unlike the U.S., South Korea took the crisis and the risks seriously. Six years earlier, it had been burned by its mishandling of a public health emergency that had led to dozens of deaths and that had almost brought down the government. Not this time: No dithering, denial or delay.

Initially, South Korea had the highest Covid-19 death rate outside of China. But its leaders quickly worked to mitigate the risks. They launched a whole of government response. In particular, South Korea followed all the mitigation guidelines that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised. These included mandatory masking, distancing, quarantines, contract tracing and testing. And it worked. Infection and death rates plummeted and have stayed low.

The United States did not take the crisis or the risks seriously, nor did the U.S. act to mitigate the risks. President Trump and his allies persistently denied or downplayed the reality of the virus.

The United States never had a whole-government response. And the nation never consistently followed CDC guidelines. In 2020, leaders, including the president, rationalized away the risks. They failed to model safe behavior, even including the wearing of masks. They continued to have large unmasked gatherings. And the pandemic itself became inexorably tangled into the politics of a presidential election, with large numbers taking sides about the reality of the virus itself, a disturbing trend that continues to this day, nearly a year after the election.

But public health experts have been sounding the alarm about the risks for more than a year. Last October, Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness concluded that of the 217,000 American Covid-19 fatalities to date, as many as 210,000 could have been prevented by taking appropriate precautions. At the time the U.S. had the highest Covid-19 rate among peer countries. Korea had the lowest.

At about the same time, the venerable New England Journal of Medicine said that the U.S. had failed at every step to take effective mitigation steps and said Americans were dying because of a leadership vacuum.

In February 2021, the British medical journal Lancet noted that as many as 40% of American Covid-19 deaths could have been avoided.

Even after the vaccines became widely available, the seeds of distrust and division continued to hamper mitigation efforts, especially in states whose governors forbade mask mandates and where vaccine hesitancy prevailed.

By late September 2021, American deaths had surpassed two round numbers — one in 500 Americans, for a total of 700,000 deaths. Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs noted that if the U.S. had done what was necessary to keep the death rate the same as our peer countries, 650,000 fewer Americans would have died.

So, what is the current Covid-19 death rate in South Korea compared to the U.S.? One in every 20,000 South Koreans, compared to one in every 469 Americans.

South Korea followed the three crisis management rules:

1. It took the problem seriously.

2. It took the risks seriously.

3. It did what was necessary to mitigate those risks.

The United States did not. The difference: American Covid-19 deaths are at 42 times the rate in South Korea. Most American fatalities were preventable, especially after the vaccines became available to anyone willing to take them.

We see at the national level dramatically different outcomes to the common crisis. There are many lessons we can harvest from the tragedies — including the dangers of misinformation and of political polarization of science. But the crisis management lesson, devoid of politics and ideology, is clear: In a crisis, take the crisis seriously, take the risks seriously, mitigate the risks fully. The outcomes will be far less devastating.

On July 26, 2021, Logos President Helio Fred Garcia was quoted in an article on Ragan Wellness on what organizations should consider when planning their employees’ return to work post-COVID-19.

 

The article outlines the internal issues organizations are currently facing, noting that a recent survey found that 58% of remote workers would look for a new job if a hybrid work option is not on the table.

 

Garcia highlighted the importance of expectation management when communicating decisions on what a return to office looks like for organizations. “Expectation management is the key to a successful transition back to the office,” he explained. “Clear, frequent communication about what employees can expect—and what is expected of them.

 

Read the full article here.

On July 5, 2021, Logos President Helio Fred Garcia was quoted in Narbis on the ways management can successfully manage expectations around returning to the office post-pandemic. The article outlines the many considerations leaders need to assess when planning for a return to office.

 

“Whatever an organization’s plans are for the return of their workforce to physical office spaces, clear, frequent communication about what employees can expect — and what is expected of them — will support a smoother return and make them more productive,” said Garcia.

 

“Expectation management is the key to a successful and productive transition back to the office. When expectations are clearly defined and met, trust is either maintained or regained if trust has already been lost. When leaders fail to meet expectations, trust will fall, and dysfunction will likely rise.”

 

Read the full article here.

This guest column by Helio Fred Garcia was released on CommPro.biz on November 2, 2020.

Here’s where the United States stands on the eve of the election: We have more than 9 million confirmed COVID-19 infections. We’re at nearly 100 thousand new cases daily; more than a thousand daily fatalities. We’re well on our way to be at a quarter million fatalities in a matter of weeks; half a million by the inauguration.

I have previously called the nation’s COVID-19 response the single-worst handled crisis, and the single largest leadership failure, in the nation’s history. Over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci told The Washington Post that the nation needs to make an “abrupt change” and that we’re “in for a whole lot of hurt.”

If Donald Trump is re-elected, we can expect the situation to continue to get exponentially worse. He continues to deny the severity of the virus.

The White House science office announced this week that among Trump’s accomplishments are “ending the pandemic.” Stanford University researchers reported this week that Trump’s “superspreader” rallies in the summer through September 22 resulted in at least 30,000 infections and 700 fatalities. And that is before his own diagnosis, and his ramping up the frequency of the rallies through election day.

If Joe Biden is elected, there will still be 70 days before he takes office, and things can get much worse in that time.

We don’t have the luxury of waiting. A President-Elect Biden will need to use all the moral and political authority he can wield to get politicians and citizens to fundamentally change the way the nation is responding to the pandemic. And to recognize that all the other crises, from economic to mental health, derive from the failure to respond effectively to COVID-19.

Foundational Principle of Crisis Response: Take Risk Seriously

A foundational principle of crisis response is to understand the scope and specifically the risks that a crisis represents, and then to do all that is necessary to mitigate those risks. The longer it takes to do that, the worse the crisis will get.

Trump never took the risks seriously, at least in public. As early as February and for months after, he told Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward what he knew about the virus:

  • It is spread in the air.
  • You catch it by breathing it.
  • Young people can get it.
  • It is far deadlier than the flu.
  • It’s easily transmissible.
  • If you’re the wrong person and it gets you, your life is pretty much over. It rips you apart.
  • It moves rapidly and viciously.
  • It is a plague.

But he was telling the nation the opposite.

The Washington Post has documented the scope and frequency of Trump’s lies while president: In his first 827 days in office, he told 10,000 lies or false statements, he told 10,000 more in the next 444 days. By July 2020, he was averaging 23 lies or false statements per day. By mid-October, it was more than 50 every day.

Last month Cornell University’s Alliance for Science published the first comprehensive study of COVID-19 misinformation in the media, and concluded that President Trump is likely the largest driver of the such misinformation.

And that misinformation had consequences. An analysis in mid-October by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness concluded that between 130,000 to 210,000 American fatalities would have been avoided if the nation had consistently applied policies equivalent to what other developed democracies had done. (Note that South Korea and the United States had their first cases on the same day. Our death rate is 78 times theirs.)

Columbia University, National Center for Disaster Preparedness

Advice from a Crisis Manager

I don’t have Joe Biden’s ear. But if I did here’s what I’d tell him and his team:

1. Create a true whole of government response.

We have never had a whole of government response, unlike most of our peer countries. Even at the federal level, we’ve had a fragments of government response. Different parts of the federal government had conflicting policies; political appointees micromanaged what had previously been independent agencies; there was inconsistency over time. And the states have been left to figure it out on their own.

Where Biden and his team don’t have authority (before inauguration, with states, cities, and counties), use persuasion and call for clear, consistent, and consistently-implemented policies and practices to stop the spread, treat the people, and treat the consequences of the poor response.

2.  Immediately call for full implementation of the Defense Production Act.

Call for surging the manufacturing of ventilators, medical supply, testing equipment, personal protective equipment, and sanitization technologies.

Although President Trump has invoked the act in limited ways – to require meat processing employees to work in violation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and for limited amounts of masks and testing equipment, he has not surged supply.

In July, the soon-to-retire head of the Defense Production Act program at the Federal Emergency Management Agency lamented that there was no national strategy: “Why isn’t this administration using the act to prevent shortages?”

A former legal advisor to the National Security Council concluded that, “What the federal government — the president or secretaries possessing delegated authority — have not done yet is use the D.P.A. to create a permanent, sustainable, redundant, domestic supply chain for all things pandemic.”

3.  Call on all governors, mayors, and other executive branch leaders to implement a national masking, social distancing, and contact tracing policy.

Masks save lives and slow the spread of the virus. Of the 105 counties in Kansas, only 21 have mask mandates. A study last month by the University of Kansas found that counties with mask mandates saw a plateau of new cases at 20 per 100,000 people. But counties without mask mandates saw a serious spike in new cases to 40 cases per 100,000 people.

Similarly, a Vanderbilt University study last week concluded that hospitals with fewer than 25 percent of patients from counties with mask mandates had a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations; hospitals with more than 75 percent of patients from counties with mask mandates saw essentially no change in COVID-19 hospitalizations from July to late October. 

Vanderbilt University

Finally, a University of Washington Study published in Nature Medicine says that up to half a million Americans could die of the virus in the next four months, but that up to 130,000 of them could be saved if 95 percent of Americans wear masks consistently in public.

4. Call on Congress to provide financial relief to states, businesses, families, and healthcare institutions.

The economic crisis is a direct result of mishandling the public health crisis. Now it isn’t just families and small businesses at risk, but also states, which are required to balance their budgets. States may need to cut essential services at precisely the moment when they will be most needed to keep people safe. And health care institutions are stretched thin and need assistance.

The next round of stimulus relief has been stalled because of election-year dynamics. But a clear Biden win and changes in the House and Senate could provide an opportunity to accelerate support.

5. Offer free testing

Knowledge is power. The availability of testing is still spotty and its reliability not clear. Biden should call for an army of testers, contact tracers, and managers to coordinate universal access to testing, an infrastructure to process tests quickly and reliably, and a further infrastructure to provide timely notice, notification, and referral to medical care when needed.

6. Respect science.

Restore true independence to CDC, FDA, HHS, and other public health operations of the US government. Take the advice of the science/public health experts to guide policy choices.

Public health should not be political. But the COVID-19 response has been highly-politicized. In a post-election environment, there is an opportunity to reset expectations and to get and follow the best advice of the scientists and public health experts.

It is the nature of science that it is self-correcting. When scientists are grappling with new challenges, they adapt understanding to what the evidence and data show. That should not lessen support for science, but actually increase it. Science isn’t dogma.

One of the first challenges post-election is whether, when, and how to go to a national shelter-in-place order similar to what some states did in the Spring. Britain just established a month-long lockdown. The decision on whether, when, how, and for how long to do something here should be based on the science   and on the actual risks we face, not on political calculation.

7. Assure Americans’ access to healthcare.

One week after the election the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case in which the U.S. government and state attorneys general will ask the court to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Despite Trump’s promises for months that a plan for better healthcare will be revealed “in two weeks,” there is no evidence of such a plan. Biden and his team must act quickly to create an alternative if the Court should nullify the healthcare that so many Americans rely upon.

In the meantime, the federal government should subsidize COVID-19 prevention, treatment, and recovery for the uninsured or underinsured.

These are not political recommendations: they’re crisis management recommendations based on the severity of the risks. The tragedy is that taking the risks seriously when Trump first knew about them could have prevented all of this suffering.

Leadership courage matters.

A version of this post appeared in CommPro.biz.

Last week Cornell University’s Alliance for Science published the first comprehensive study of coronavirus misinformation in the media, and concluded that President Trump is likely the largest driver of the such misinformation.

Lost in the News Cycle

In any other administration this would have led the news for at least a week.

But the report came five days after President Donald J. Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. It came four days after publication of a massive New York Times investigation that revealed that President Trump paid no federal income taxes for years. It came just two days after the debate debacle in which the President refused to condemn white supremacy and seemed to endorse the Proud Boys. And it came just hours before the news that the President and First Lady had tested positive for COVID-19.

I wish the President and the First Lady a speedy and complete recovery.

But it is important that this news not be lost, and that the President be held accountable for the consequences of his words, actions, and inaction.

Language, Inaction, and Consequences

I am a professor of ethics, leadership, and communication at Columbia University and New York University. This summer my book about Trump’s language and how it inspires violence was published. I finished writing Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It in February. But since then the effect of Trump’s language has been even more dangerous.

In the book, I document how charismatic leaders use language in ways that set a powerful context that determines what makes sense to their followers. Such leaders can make their followers believe absurdities, which then can make atrocities possible. If COVID-19 is a hoax, if it will magically disappear, if it affects only the elderly with heart problems, then it makes sense for people to gather in large crowds without social distancing or masks.

There’s just one problem. None of that is true. But Trump said all those things. And his followers believed him. And the President and his political allies refused to implement policies to protect their citizens.

What The President Knew, and When The President Knew It

As I write this, 210,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 and the President is being treated for it at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.

But it didn’t have to happen. Three weeks ago Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative, estimated that if the nation had gone to national masking and lock-down one week earlier in March, and had maintained a constant masking and social distancing policy, 150,000 of fatalities could have been avoided.

Trump knew about the severity of the virus in February and March.

In taped discussions Trump told Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward what he knew about how dangerous COVID-19 is:

  • It is spread in the air
  • You catch it by breathing it
  • Young people can get it
  • It is far deadlier than the flu
  • It’s easily transmissible
  • If you’re the wrong person and it gets you, your life is pretty much over. It rips you apart
  • It moves rapidly and viciously.
  • It is a plague

But he was telling the nation the opposite.

“Infodemic” of COVID-19

The Report Cover

President Trump likes to label anything he doesn’t agree with Fake News. But it turns out that he’s the largest disseminator of misinformation about Coronavirus.

Cornell University’s Alliance for Science analyzed 38 million pieces of content published in English worldwide between January 1 and May 26, 2020. It identified 1.1 million news articles that “disseminated, amplified or reported on misinformation related to the pandemic.”

On October 1, 2020 the Alliance published its report. It notes,

“These findings are of significant concern because if people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may attempt harmful cures or be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus.”

Its conclusion:

“One major finding is that media mentions of President Trump within the context of different misinformation topics made up 37% of the overall ‘misinformation conversation,’ much more than any other single topic.

The study concludes that Donald Trump was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic.’

In contrast only 16% of media mentions of misinformation were explicitly ‘fact-checking’ in nature, suggesting that a substantial quantity of misinformation reaches media consumers without being challenged or accompanied by factually accurate information.”

But Trump may be responsible for more than the 37% of the news stories that name him. The report says that

” a substantial proportion of other topics was also driven by the president’s comments [but did not explicitly name him], so some overlap can be expected.

Graphic from Cornell Alliance for Science Report

The most prevalent misinformation was about miracle cures. More than 295,000 stories mentioned some version of a miracle cure. (Note that the study looked only at stories that were published before the end of May, long before the president’s statements about a vaccine being ready by the end of October.)

The report notes that Trump prompted a surge of miracle cure stories when he spoke of using disinfectants internally and advocated taking hydroxychloroquine.

The second most prevalent topic, mentioned in nearly 50,000 stories, was that COVID had something to do with the “deep state.” The report notes,

“Mentions of conspiracies linked to alleged secret “new world orders” or ‘deep state’ government bodies existed throughout the time period and were referenced in passing in conversations that mentioned or listed widespread conspiracies. Indeed, President Trump joked about the US State Department being a ‘Deep State’ Department during a White House COVID press conference in March.”

The third most prevalent misinformation was about COVID-19 being a Democratic hoax, mentioned in more than 40,000 stories.

 

Human Consequences of Misinformation

The report closes with a warning: Misinformation has consequences:

“It is especially notable that while misinformation and conspiracy theories promulgated by ostensibly grassroots sources… do appear in our analysis in several of the topics, they contributed far less to the overall volume of misinformation than more powerful actors, in particular the US President.

In previous pandemics, such as the HIV/AIDS outbreak, misinformation and its effect on policy was estimated to have led to an additional 300,000 deaths in South Africa alone.

If similar or worse outcomes are to be avoided in the present COVID-19 pandemic, greater efforts will need to be made to combat the “infodemic” that is already substantially polluting the wider media discourse.”

In my book, I help engaged citizens, civic leaders, and public officials recognize dangerous language and then confront those who use it. I urge such citizens and leaders to hold those who use such language responsible for the consequences.

I wish President Trump a full and fast recovery. He and those closest to him have now been affected by their own denial of science. I hope that now he can start to model appropriate safe behavior.

But even as Trump is being treated in the hospital his campaign says it will stay the course, including an in-person rally for Vice President Mike Pence the day after the vice-presidential debate in several days. This is both irresponsible and dangerous.

I urge civic leaders, engaged citizens, and public officials, regardless of party, to stop having super-spreader events such as in-person rallies. And finally to begin modeling responsible behavior: Wear a mask, maintain social distancing. Masking and distancing are not political acts; they are a civic responsibility.

NEW YORK (May 13, 2020) — As the nation begins implementing plans to reopen, Logos Consulting Group will continue practicing social distancing while also providing the personal touch our clients expect.

“Connecting closely with clients is and always will be our highest priority, in whatever form that takes,” said Helio Fred Garcia, president of Logos Consulting Group. “These are some of the hardest times for many leaders and organizations, which is why it is more important than ever before for us to be available.”

Logos Consulting Group helps leaders and their organizations manage choices when stakes are high, communicate effectively when trust is on the line, and strengthen leadership skills to inspire action.

“We have been advising institutions and their leaders directly in the midst of COVID-19,” added Garcia. “Right now, we’re providing immediate counsel to clients in both our crisis management and crisis communication practice, as well as virtual coaching for multiple leadership levels and designated spokespeople.”

Logos Consulting Group has also been studying trends on leadership in COVID-19 and has written and spoken extensively about these findings. Logos associates have spoken publicly at a variety of webinars, virtual conferences, and coaching sessions including the Defense Innovation Network, Public Relations Society of America, Professional Speechwriters Association/Executive Communication Council, and others to include events for our clients. Topics have included best practices in communication during COVID-19, maintaining powerful presence in a remote environment, effective social media messaging, and more.

“This is not the end of the crisis, it is the end of the beginning,” said Garcia. “We are not slowing down, and if anything, we are making ourselves more available than ever before by guiding our clients through this crisis.”

To explore how Logos Consulting Group can help you, contact us via email here or via our website here.

 

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Crises reveal what organizations value. Whether a business demonstrates corporate responsibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, or fails to do so, can determine if the company and its leaders emerge from this crisis with the trust and confidence of their stakeholders intact.

Source: google.com/covid19/

Definitions of corporate responsibility have evolved from an exclusive focus on shareholder returns, to the acknowledgment by businesses of a much broader group of corporate stakeholders and range of responsibilities. Acting responsibly today means more than legal compliance and goes beyond corporate philanthropy.

At its core, corporate responsibility means meeting stakeholder expectations for responsible conduct. Meeting both the financial and non-financial expectations of its investors, customers, employees, business partners, suppliers, regulators, and the communities where it operates, helps a company to manage risk, protect its reputation, attract and retain employees, grow its markets, and sustain its financial performance.

Demonstrating corporate responsibility is a key challenge for business leaders in the best of times. As my colleague Helio Fred Garcia observes, the COVID-19 crisis comprises simultaneous crises (public health, business, economic, information, governance, social, mental health) of unprecedented scope that require a multi-dimensional leadership response. [1]

Unprecedented in its scope, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for companies and their leaders to live their values by acting responsibly.

When navigating next steps during the pandemic, business leaders should keep in mind key principles for demonstrating corporate responsibility.

 

Understand the potential impacts of your crisis response.

Responsible organizations understand the potential impacts of their actions and take steps to “do no harm.” Business leaders determining how to respond to the pandemic need to assess the potential impacts on all company stakeholders.

Well-managed organizations plan for foreseeable crises. Companies that engage in meaningful crisis planning likely had a standby pandemic crisis plan they could draw upon as they began to address COVID-19. Effective crisis management plans identify potentially affected stakeholders and catalogue relevant corporate policies for high priority scenarios. A global manufacturer’s pandemic planning, for example, would have considered the business impact of supply chain interruptions, triggers to suspend executive travel, and criteria for allowing employees to work remotely.

When evaluating next steps, companies should seek to “do no harm” by preventing or mitigating harmful impacts.

Companies without a pandemic crisis plan in place can still identify potential impacts to guide their response. Enterprise-wide impact mapping and assessment can help an organization prioritize next steps. By applying a human rights impact lens to its operations and stakeholders, [2] a hospital system, for example, might prioritize securing adequate personal protective equipment to ensure the health and safety of its healthcare workers; expanding diagnostic testing among vulnerable communities to ensure nondiscrimination in patient access to healthcare, and communicating information about the virus and medical capacity to ensure public access to reliable and timely information.

When evaluating next steps, companies should seek to “do no harm” by preventing or mitigating harmful impacts. Apparel companies that have cancelled supplier contracts for goods during the pandemic face criticism for triggering layoffs of the factory workers worldwide that make their products, often among the groups most vulnerable to COVID-19. A quick stakeholder impact assessment would have flagged the risk of harming supply chain workers. Responsible international brands have sought to protect workers by honoring their supplier contracts during the pandemic.

Similarly, companies that provide paid sick leave are protecting the health of employees, customers and the general public alike. When the California-based retailer Patagonia voluntarily closed its stores nationwide while continuing to pay its employees, its CEO and President, Rose Marcario stated, “It’s everyone’s responsibility to help stop the spread of this virus.”

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to help stop the spread of this virus.” 

− Rose Marcario, CEO and President, Patagonia Inc.

 

Anticipate changing stakeholder expectations.

Meeting stakeholder expectations demonstrates corporate responsibility and earns the trust of those who matter most to your business. All stakeholders expect a responsible organization to care about the multiple dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis and to take appropriate action.

What stakeholders expect a responsible company to do will change. The current pandemic is a dynamic situation that calls for decision-makers to adapt policies to new information. Responsible companies meet stakeholders where they are and adjust accordingly.

Customers, for example, expect essential businesses that remain open (or that reopen) to follow public health guidelines, to protect their employees, and to protect vulnerable community members. Obeying the law is the just the starting point.

On my first trip to the grocery store after a statewide “stay-at-home” order had been issued, the store had placed limits on the number of scarce items that customers could buy, like cleaning products and milk. Employees were working hard to keep shelves stocked. Two weeks later, consistent with evolving public health guidance, the store was limiting the number of customers allowed inside at once, plexiglass shields had been placed between checkout workers and customer payment stations, and all store employees wore gloves and masks. The grocery chain had also adopted an industry-wide practice reserving its opening hour for elderly customers. On my most recent shopping trip, the store had instituted “one-way” aisles to ensure physical distancing and all customers were required to wear face coverings.

Some of these measures were mandated; some were voluntary. All track what the store’s customers, employees, and community would expect a responsible grocery store to do under the circumstances based on available information.

Conversely, companies that act contrary to stakeholder expectations for responsible conduct, even if the actions are legal and contribute to the bottom line, risk losing the trust of customers, investors, and regulators. Large public corporations that secured millions of dollars of loans under the Paycheck Protection Program intended for small businesses, for example, have endured substantial public criticism prompting some companies to return the funds. The angry reaction should not have been a surprise for corporate leaders paying attention to stakeholder expectations. 

 

Philanthropy is not a substitute for responsibility.

Stakeholders expect responsible companies with the resources to do so, to give money and to tap their expertise during a crisis. Many businesses, large and small, have responded to the pandemic by providing financial or in-kind support to healthcare workers, to small businesses, and to international and community organizations addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations.

Source: covid19responsefund.org/

Google has pledged more than $800 million to support small businesses, health organizations and governments, and health workers on the frontline of the global pandemic. The company’s contribution includes $250 million in advertising credits to help the World Health Organization and more than 100 government agencies disseminate information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Citigroup is donating a total of $15 million to the United Nations Foundation and World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, to No Kid Hungry to support emergency food-distribution programs in the United States, and to international efforts in countries that are severely affected by the pandemic. The British and Dutch consumer goods multinational Unilever is contributing €100 million through donations of soap, sanitizer, bleach and food, including adapting its manufacturing lines to produce sanitizer for use in hospitals.

All of these efforts are welcome.

Philanthropy, however, does not excuse a company from acting responsibly elsewhere in its operations.

Source: www.ethicalconsumer.org

Amazon faces intense criticism for failing to adequately protect its employees from the outset of the pandemic; resisting paid sick time, hazard pay, and health benefits for part-time employees; and retaliating against a warehouse worker who protested working conditions. Since then, Amazon has enhanced its health and safety practices, hired 175,000 additional employees, and donated thousands of laptops to Seattle public school students, among other efforts. CEO and Founder Jeff Bezos announced a $100 million gift to Feeding America. The company’s philanthropic responses alone, however, are proving insufficient to meet stakeholder expectations for responsible conduct. Employees continue to protest Amazon’s working conditions and policies, and regulators have launched investigations into the company’s labor practices.

McDonald’s Corporation has donated over $3 million in food to support local communities during the COVID-19 pandemic; yet, more than half a million McDonald’s workers without access to paid sick leave are serving food nationwide.

Leading companies act and give responsibly.

 

Business leaders are called to act when government fails to do so.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a crisis of government capacity and leadership. Corporate responsibility today means filling these governance gaps.

Business leaders should be prepared to address the governmental pandemic response by speaking out against harmful policies and advocating for responsible solutions.

Source: coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html, visited 5/8/2020

Responsible companies in the United States are meeting public needs that the federal government has failed to address. Companies in many different sectors are stepping in to manufacture, purchase, and distribute personal protective equipment; to accelerate production of diagnostic tests and medical equipment like ventilators; and to disseminate accurate data on the virus and its spread. Microsoft voluntarily told its employees to work from home in support of local health authorities’ efforts to communicate the urgency of the looming pandemic in Seattle. Apple and Google are partnering to develop contact tracing technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus.

Stakeholders increasingly expect corporate leaders to speak out on public policy issues, [3] such as gun violence and immigration policy, [4] when government fails to act or causes harm. COVID-19 is accelerating this trend. In his annual letter to CEOs, Larry Fink, the chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, noted last year that “stakeholders are pushing companies to wade into sensitive social and political issues — especially as they see governments failing to do so effectively.” Fink called on CEOs to demonstrate leadership and corporate commitment to “to the countries, regions, and communities where they operate, particularly on issues central to the world’s future prosperity.” No issue meets these criteria right now more than the multi-dimensional COVID-19 crisis.

CEOs that understand and anticipate the potential impacts on of all of their company’s stakeholders are not rushing to reopen.

Business leaders should be prepared to address the governmental pandemic response by speaking out against harmful policies and advocating for responsible solutions. Consumer product brands have had to correct inaccurate information about disinfectants. Many businesses in the United States must now decide whether to reopen against data-driven public health guidance. CEOs that understand and anticipate the potential impacts on of all of their company’s stakeholders are not rushing to reopen.

Unprecedented in its scope, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity for companies and their leaders to live their values by acting responsibly.

 

Logos Senior Advisor Anthony Ewing counsels executives on corporate responsibility and works with clients to establish and strengthen crisis management programs. He teaches a graduate seminar on corporate responsibility at Columbia Law School.

 

Notes

[1] Helio Fred Garcia, “Leadership, Communication, and COVID-19,” (Mar. 25, 2020) https://logosconsulting.net/leadership-communication-and-covid-19/.

[2] Anthony Ewing, “Integrating Human Rights into Crisis Planning,” A Good Practice Note endorsed by the United Nations Global Compact Human Rights and Labour Working Group (6 October 2015), https://www.unglobalcompact.org/docs/issues_doc/human_rights/Human_Rights_Working_Group/crisis-planning-GPN.pdf.

[3] Aaron K. Chatterji and Michael W. Toffel, “The New CEO Activists,” Harvard Business Review (January–February 2018), https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-new-ceo-activists.

[4] Anthony Ewing, “Business and Human Rights: Lessons for Managing the Trump Presidency,” blog post, February 13, 2017, https://logosconsulting.net/business-and-human-rights-lessons-for-managing-the-trump-presidency/.

“When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

~ George Washington Carver

So: You’re wearing a mask and keeping a socially responsible distance. You’re staying safe but taking long daily walks in the nearly empty streets of New York City to keep yourself healthy and sane. You peer into the dark, empty storefronts as you stroll along. You arrive at the place you always found familiar and comforting; it now looks abandoned and forbidding. There is no human to greet you, only a few words on a single page attached to the front door. Almost every door on every street has a similar sign.

As the days of shutdown have dragged on, I’ve become intrigued by these signs, snapping pictures of at least 100 of them. I’ve read the words again and again. They are breathtaking in their sameness, leading me to the question: How much difference can a few words on a simple sign possibly make?

Businesses reopening in the aftermath of the current crisis may soon find out.

Sometimes the message on the door is just one word – “Closed.” Not terribly helpful, is it? That feels more like the end of a relationship than a reassurance that you and your spot will be reunited in the future.

While heavily trafficked commercial chains may have a following who look for convenience alone, a cozy neighborhood haunt cannot exist without building an emotional bond – appreciation, affection, even love – with its customers. When that business closes indefinitely, or its hours are suddenly and severely curtailed, anxious customers need to see words of gratitude, emotion, and empathy: “We thank you.” “We appreciate you.” “We miss you.” “We understand what you are going through because we are going through it, too.”

Empathy should start right there at the front door.

Surprisingly, even in these difficult times, when those words of connectivity matter most, when customers expect to find love letters from deeply grateful owners, they find crisis boilerplate instead, often written in haste, dashed off as a formality and perhaps copied from a neighboring establishment. Even worse, sometimes, the desired words do not appear at all.

That strategically placed sheet of paper – occasionally drafted with the assistance of a lawyer or a communications professional – may be instructive but it’s not terribly personal. Or authentic. Or meaningful.

That kind of corporate jargon often makes me stop reading – I imagine you know the phrases: “our top priority,” “we are closely monitoring,” “we are committed to …”  But owners use them because they know they need to communicate quickly with customers coming to the door, and they want the message to sound official. Professional communicators reading this will understand that the sign on the door is a kind of stand-by statement to let the entire world, including those critical customers, know what is going on in that moment and what they can expect while the crisis – and temporary closure – continues.

As my colleague, Helio Fred Garcia, has written in The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis, an insightful guide to crisis decision-making (even during one not of your own making), critical communications like that sign on the door should embrace five fundamental elements:

  1. ACKNOWLEDGMENT – a statement of awareness that something has happened.
  2. EMPATHY – an expression of empathy or sympathy to those who are hurting or inconvenienced – and in COVID-19 times, everyone is hurting and inconvenienced.
  3. VALUES – a declaration of the business’ values – including how much that business values those customers.
  4. APPROACH – a summary of the actions the business is taking in the wake of the crisis.
  5. COMMITMENT – a statement that sets future expectations, i.e., “We will keep you up-to-date as we hear any important news and will let you know when we can reopen. We will be here for you online even while we are closed.”

[For a quick summary of these elements, see the Leadership Lesson on Standby Statements]

In all fairness, I’m sure these independent owners also mean to communicate how much they love and miss their customers. But their words – crafted out of necessity and in great haste from a template – don’t quite resonate. They don’t quite say: We are closed, but we miss you and are still there for you.

Contrast those signs with recent updates that a certain coffee company has posted on Instagram – the digital front door for many contemporary consumers. Note the likes and comments.

So, for owners of shuttered businesses – small or large, mighty or nimble – here are two important questions you should ask yourself:

1. How can you communicate your message in conversational human language, rather than boilerplate jargon? You’re dealing with ordinary humans. Why not sound like one?

2. How can you include a message of gratitude at the very top of the page? Owners should express their sincere thanks to the customer who has arrived at the door in the first sentence or two. What would happen if the language of the sign started there? Only good things, I promise you.

Here are some signs that hit the mark beautifully. Which ones do you like best?

One last thought: many of the signs that I see on the doors have been left there unchanged for weeks.

Dear shop owners— It’s not too late to change that sign!

Love,

Your Devoted Customer

This post was originally published in the Daily Kos, a progressive political opinion site. This guest column was adapted from material in my forthcoming book, Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront it.

Almost exactly a month ago, I raised the alarm about the increase in incivility against Asians and Asian Americans, provoked in part by President Trump’s use of “China Virus” or “Chinese Virus” to describe COVID-19. The FBI has since warned that a wave of hate crimes against people perceived to be Asian or Asian-American is under way.

Now, this incivility has turned towards our healthcare workers and government officials.

It began nearly two weeks ago, as people began protesting outside of government buildings demanding that states reopen. Resentment has been building about stay-at-home orders since early March, encouraged by conservative media and some government officials – including President Trump.

On April 16, Trump announced new guidelines from his administration on how states should lift stay-in-place orders to restart the economy, titled “Opening Up America Again.”

“Based on the latest data, our team of experts now agrees that we can begin the next front in our war, which we’re calling, “Opening Up America Again.” And that’s what we’re doing: We’re opening up our country.  And we have to do that.  America wants to be open, and Americans want to be open. As I have said for some time now, a national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution.  To preserve the health of our citizens, we must also preserve the health and functioning of our economy.”

The guidelines outline a phased process that governors would lead based on their specific circumstances. This came days after Trump claimed he had “ultimate authority” to reopen states, as governors across the east and west coasts vowed to not reopen their states until the pandemic subsides.

 

Incendiary Tweets

The next day, Trump flipped his script. Several small protests had popped up across the country against the stay-at-home orders. That morning, Fox News aired a segment about a group called “Liberate Minnesota,” which planned to protest the state’s stay-at-home order outside of the governor’s house.

Minutes later, Trump tweeted,

“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” followed by “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINA, and save your great 2nd amendment. It is under siege!”

This apparent endorsement of the protests, in direct violation of public health guidelines issued by Trump’s own administration, was seen by some as a signal. Far-right extremists believed Trump’s tweets were a call for armed conflict, an event referred to as “the boogaloo.” The term “Boogaloo,” shorthand for “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo,” had been documented in February of this year as a new and growing movement of far-right extremists calling for a new Civil War. Hours after the president’s “Liberate” tweets, more than 1,000 tweets were posted using the term “Boogaloo.”

And, in fact, the 2nd Amendment was not under attack by any governmental or political leader. But protesters took the cue and began showing up in public heavily armed, including with semi-automatic assault weapons.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee immediately recognized the threat posed by Trump’s tweets:

“The president’s statements this morning encourage illegal and dangerous acts. He is putting millions of people in danger of contracting COVID-19. His unhinged rantings and calls for people to “liberate” states could also lead to violence. We’ve seen it before.”

Inslee continued:

“The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies even while his own administration says the virus is real and is deadly, and that we have a long way to go before restrictions can be lifted.”

Over the next several days, anti-lockdown protests spread across the country, with large crowds gathering outside of government buildings and governors’ homes, many without wearing masks and bearing homemade signs such as “COVID-19 is a lie” and “Social distancing = communism.” Many protestors wore MAGA hats. Some protestors carried weapons, flew Nazi and confederate flags, and shouted phrases typically heard during Trump rallies.

 

Attacking Healthcare Heroes

And then the vitriol turned to healthcare workers. As the anti-lockdown protests continued, healthcare workers began counter-protesting on their days off across the country, appearing in scrubs and masks in defiance of those claiming the virus isn’t real. Anti-lockdown protestors began harassing these healthcare workers, shouting insults like “shame”, “traitors”, and “fake nurses.”

Lauren Leander, an ICU nurse in Arizona, described her interactions with protestors as she and her colleagues stood silently in scrubs and masks at an anti-quarantine protest in Phoenix:

“It was heated, people were very fired up about what they had to say… A lot of the top comments we got were about us being fake nurses, there was a huge majority of them that still believe this virus is fake, that it’s a hoax and not real at all. They were convinced that we’re fake nurses and that’s why we weren’t talking.”

Even politicians have propagated this language, questioning the legitimacy of the health workers. Who were counter-protesting. Former Arizona state senator, Dr. Kelli Ward, tweeted on April 21,

“EVEN IF these “spontaneously” appearing ppl at protests against govt overreach (sporting the same outfits, postures, & facial expressions) ARE involved in healthcare – when they appeared at rallies, they were actors playing parts. #Propaganda #FakeOutrage”.

Meanwhile, Trump continued passively supporting the protests.

 

Deflecting Responsibility

In Words on Fire I document a pattern Trump uses when asked to denounce people who commit or threaten violence in the wake of  Trump’s rhetoric. Trump’s response typically includes some or all the four elements below.

Deflect. He does this in several ways. He ignores the call to denounce. He changes the subject. He professes ignorance about the event. He characterizes the event differently. Sometimes he expresses sympathy for victims while not addressing the event that caused them to be become victims.

Diminish. If pressed he diminishes the significance of the event or attempts to create equivalence between the event and more benign topics.

Denounce. After an interval, sometimes of hours, but often of days, Trump issues a written denunciation or reads a statement denouncing the event or person, often in a tone of rote recitation.

Revert. Not long after the denunciation, Trump reverts to his earlier language and behavior, as if his denunciation never happened. This is a constant; it happens after every denunciation.

On April 20, President Trump was asked specifically about whether he was worried that his words may incite violence. It led to this exchange:

Q    You know, these — you referred to these protests earlier.  You know, some of them are getting pretty intense and were actually getting some death threats to some governors who are reluctant to reopen.

He went to Step 1, Deflect:

THE PRESIDENT:  You are, in the media?

Q    No, the governors are getting death threats.  You know, governors of Kentucky, Michigan, Virginia.  They’re getting increased level of death threats.  And are you concerned that your talk about liberation and the Second Amendment and all this stuff —

THE PRESIDENT:  No.  No, no.

Q    — are you inciting violence among a few people who are (inaudible)?

THE PRESIDENT:  I’ve seen the people.  I’ve seen interviews of the people.  These are great people.  Look, they want to get — they call it “cabin fever.”  You’ve heard the term.  They’ve got cabin fever.  They want to get back.  They want their life back.  Their life was taken away from them…

Q    Are worried about violence though?  I mean, some of them (inaudible) threats at them.

He then went to Step 2: Diminish:

THE PRESIDENT:  I am not.  No, I’m not.  I think these people are — I’ve never seen so many American flags.  I mean, I’m seeing the same thing that you’re seeing.  I don’t see it any differently.

Q    There are Nazi flags out there too.

THE PRESIDENT:  They are who?

Q    Nazis flags.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, that I totally would say, “No way.”  But I’ve seen — I didn’t see that.  I see all — of course, I’m sure the news plays that up.  I’ve seen American flags all over the place.  I have never seen so many American flags at a rally as I have at these rallies.  These people love our country.  They want to get back to work.

He has yet to denounce the protestors, despite the fact that the majority of Americans are more concerned about states reopening too quickly than restarting the economy. Why is that?

 

Toxic Spokesman

Trump has played to this base before, since the very beginning of his first presidential campaign. He has frequently used language recognized by white supremacists and white nationalists.

And although Trump may not directly share their views, we know he is not averse to working with people who share the ideology of the protestors.

And he surrounds himself with people who are similarly-disposed.

On April 23, reports came out the Trump’s newly appointed Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, Michael Caputo, had deleted more than a thousand tweets, including tweets from March that included racists and derogatory comments about Chinese people, the very rhetoric that caused the wave of hate crimes the FBI warned about.

Caputo’s tweets also claimed that Democrats were rooting for the virus to kill thousands of people, and conspiracy theories about how the virus was a hoax to hurt Trump.

This man will now be the chief spokesman for America’s healthcare infrastructure.

 

***

We’ve seen the effects of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric before. We know the predictable consequences of that rhetoric. If Trump continues to use language that encourages people to violence, eventually someone will answer his call.

New York, NY (April 14th, 2020) – The Chinese language edition of The Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis by Helio Fred Garcia has been published by the Posts & Telecom Press, a leading publisher of business and non-fiction titles in China. The publisher has positioned the book as an essential tool for Chinese leaders in all sectors to help restore trust and confidence of stakeholders lost in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am thrilled that this edition of The Agony of Decision is available at a moment of unprecedented crisis,” said Garcia. “As the recovery from COVID-19 continues, there is an opportunity to regain trust that has been lost and note the lessons that this pandemic has taught not only China, but the world.”

The Agony of Decision is the first title published by Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership Press in July 2017. The Chinese language title is 从危到机: 危机中的决策之痛与领导之术.

The Chinese edition was translated from English by Xinyin Lu, deputy director, the Institute of Corporate Communication at the Academy of Media and Public Affairs at the Communication University of China and by Dr. Steven Guanpeng Dong, Chair Professor and Dean of the School of Government and Public Affairs at the Communication University of China, the leading Chinese university specializing in journalism, communication, documentary filmmaking, and related disciplines. Dr. Dong also wrote the foreword to the Chinese edition.

You can learn more about the English edition here. The Chinese edition is available as a physical book, an e-book, and an audio book at all major Chinese online markets, including DangdangJDTaobao (Alibaba), and Amazon China.

For media inquiries, please reach out to Maida K. Zheng, mzheng@logosconsulting.net or at 646-338-0422.