Unprecedented times require clear and calm communication

The U.S. can come through the COVID-19 crisis, albeit not completely unscathed, but it will require robust leadership and much stronger and more effective emergency measures.

Deserted sports venues are just one impact of the global COVID-19 health crisis. (Photo credit: Getty Images.)

As my proud Kentuckian wife said to me yesterday, when the Bluegrass state cancels basketball and religion you know we are living in unprecedented times.

On Wednesday the state governor asked churches to suspend weekend services and yesterday the men's college basketball Southeastern Conference Tournament was canceled, both due to the coronavirus crisis.

Some would say those two Kentucky staples are essentially the same thing, but it’s just one of an avalanche of developments this week that propelled COVID-19 to the top of the pile of things everyone’s thinking about.

As we started work on Monday there was still a slight lingering perception that this was the rest of the world’s problem and the U.S. would avoid the worst of it. Then the markets opened and began a rapid trajectory downwards. Money talks and investors were heading for the hills, triggering stock exchange “circuit breakers” put in place to avoid another Black Monday.

Tuesday seemed to be a tipping point in public perception of the health crisis and that was confirmed Wednesday when the World Health Organization officially declared the situation a pandemic.

President Donald Trump’s car-crash TV appearance Wednesday night presaged more massive falls on global stock markets, with absolutely no one convinced the U.S. was prepared in any way for what was crashing down on it.

When the NBA suspended the basketball season Wednesday after a player tested positive, even those recalcitrants who hadn't yet paid attention woke up.

By the end of the week and an unfortunately timed Friday the 13th, force majeure and social distancing were the new mots du jour.

PRWeek was not immune to the crisis and we took the difficult but necessary decision to postpone next Thursday’s annual awards gala celebration to a more appropriate later date when hopefully this thing dies down.

While all very different, the coronavirus crisis quickly elevated itself to be up there with the global financial crash of 2008, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and the dotcom bust in 2001 as seminal moments in modern history.

While I was interviewing Natasha Priya Dyal, editor of PRWeek sister title Infectious Disease Advisor, for this week’s podcast, my cohost Frank Washkuch read out some of the constant stream of news stories that broke while we were on air. All of them would have qualified for “front page” status on a normal working day, but each was now relegated to a small footnote on the way to seeming Armageddon.

Incidentally, Dyal’s down-to-earth and clearly transmitted exposition of the coronavirus crisis, its implications and what should be done to alleviate it was an object lesson in effective communication that deserves a wider platform. It would bear replicating by the president and others charged with leadership during this difficult period. Her 10 myths about COVID-19 piece is also well worth a read.

Because be in absolutely no doubt that these are very tough times and the COVID-19 crisis is going to impact every facet of PR and communications, business, government and society in general.

Already yesterday there were reports of layoffs at creative agencies and, while some PR firms will get some new crisis work during this period to help clients navigate the situation, the big ticket consumer and more marketing-led assignments will be cut back and retainers will be reduced.

That’s to say nothing of the implications for particularly hard-hit industries such as airlines, event producers, hotels, restaurants, sports and travel companies. And not forgetting monkeys in Thailand, who are fighting among themselves because there are no tourists to scrounge food from.

Apart from interacting with colleagues such as Dyal who we had sat near to for years without so much as saying hello, the only good sign this week was that COVID-19 cases in China and South Korea started to decline.

Those countries suffered earlier than the U.S. and other parts of the world. They instigated draconian measures to keep people off the streets and reduce the risk of the virus spreading. They have swift and extensive testing procedures in place.

It shows the virus will eventually pass through, hopefully in a matter of months, but only if the health crisis is finally addressed in a serious manner by government and the authorities. Despite initial rhetoric by the government, this is definitely not business as usual or a conspiracy by the media and the Democratic Party.

And the U.S. does not have the same resources in place as China and South Korea. Contrary to what the president says, "anyone" can certainly not get tested. Indeed, experts are advising people outside high-risk categories to stay home and self-isolate rather than clog up medical facilities trying to get a test.

Amidst this mayhem, PRWeek will continue to bring you all the essential day-to-day content about the PR and communications industry, including account wins and losses, people moves, case studies and trend analysis. Most importantly, we will also double down on our coverage of the coronavirus and COVID-19 crisis.

PRWeek's parent company, Haymarket Media, is also launching an email bulletin next week aggregating content about COVID-19 from across our global portfolio of brands in areas including marketing, communications, medical, supply chain management, human resources, nonprofits, horticulture, finance, management, natural and built environments, computer security and long-term care, so keep your eyes open for that. 

Now is the time to look out for each other, be sensible, to avoid large gatherings of people and, most of all, to wash our hands thoroughly.

Then we can hopefully look forward to a time when, once again, the only things to really worry about are the basketball results and getting to church on time on Sunday.

Stay safe out there.

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