Don Spetner on how business can come to the rescue

‘I never imagined I’d see a time when businesses would emerge as the most trustworthy and competent institutions in a time of social and medical crisis.’

Don Spetner, senior corporate adviser, Weber Shandwick
Don Spetner, senior corporate adviser, Weber Shandwick

Shortly after the pandemic broke in March, I was lucky enough to moderate a call with a small group of comms leaders from some of the biggest and best-known companies. It was a candid, open dialogue among the women and men who ran the function for organizations such as IBM, Best Buy, Prudential, J&J and others. Our first call was held on March 20, the same morning that New York State announced the closing of all nonessential businesses.

The world had come to a screeching halt. Companies were scrambling to figure out how to close down offices, keep operations running, take care of employees, service customers and determine what constituted an “essential” service. They also had to figure out how to keep revenue coming in.

What struck me in March was how organized, efficient and clear each of these companies were in their approach. Each CCO began their day early with an executive team call, followed by one with their own comms team. They ended the day late, with similar briefings. Each had their own version of a resource deployment strategy. For example, J&J had outlined clear roles and responsibilities for how, where and when its top execs should communicate. Its CEO was focused on critical external constituents, while the vice chair shouldered the majority of internal communications. Figuring out how to allot executive bandwidth was a critical issue, and they were all over it.

Each of these organizations had put employee safety at the top of its priority list. This was followed quickly by a mandate for clear, open and two-way communications. I found that I came away from these calls feeling calmer and more optimistic. Amid the daily chaos, here was a part of America that was clear-eyed, focused and determined to get on top of this crisis. It reminded me that we still were a great country, capable of remarkable resiliency and compassion — despite what I saw on the evening news.

I’ve continued to host versions of these calls every couple of weeks, and I remain impressed at the business world’s response to the crises engulfing our nation. After the death of George Floyd while in police custody and the protests that followed, it was remarkable to witness how quickly the corporate world responded, and how many companies were willing to acknowledge the inequities within their own organizations. They quickly moved to create forums for diverse voices to be heard, and for all employees to be educated on the realities of systemic racism.

Imagine if our society at large reacted similarly.

In addition, businesses have acknowledged the stress and anxiety of our awful new reality, and are addressing its impact on mental health. Some have mandated that employees take their vacation days. Some have banned all meetings on Fridays, and one Silicon Valley company instituted a day off every two weeks in order to help combat burnout.

Some days I feel like I’m witnessing the fall of the Roman Empire in real time. Fistfights in grocery stores over face masks. Wildfires burning at record-setting rates. Multiple hurricanes. And a populace torn in two by distrust and anger.

And yet, a recent survey by KRC Research found that 59% of employees believe that American businesses are increasingly a constructive force for positive change. And 66% believe their employer is putting worker safety over profit.

I never imagined I’d see a time when businesses would emerge as the most trustworthy and competent institutions in a time of social and medical crisis.

And yet, here we are. Let’s not blow it.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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