This is a trying time, both personally and professionally. Wherever we are, we’re affected by a sort of global lockdown in the face of COVID-19. Both in our personal life and in our professional one, we may feel isolated, out of touch, disconnected, anxious and uncertain about our future. So, what can we do to stay strong? How can we bolster ourselves and our companies during this time? And what can we do to help others? We invited founder of Incendio International, Jane Gideon, to talk about this on the GoodTech Vidcast.

The COVID-19 Crisis

Jane tells us that a crisis is, by definition, a disruption in the normal way of doing things. It’s a matter of anger, fear, or disruption, that is changing our normal cycle of doing things. “People are afraid when changes are happening, and they feel out of control,” she says. 

How should companies communicate during this time of crisis?

“The whole thing with companies saying ‘we’re all in this together,’ is about trying to lead with compassion – to understand that people are scared, and that they’re suffering. They’re worried, and we want to lead with helping them cope with that, by saying that we’re all in this together, and that we understand. It’s a good place to start, but you can’t just keep repeating the same thing.” Jane says that there’s a lot to be communicating about right now, since this situation is changing day by day. “One of the things I’ve recommended to clients is to stop bots and automatic ad posting and responses, because those bots don’t understand the human element of what’s happening. So, stop responding with automatic email distributions. They’re so off center. I would make sure you have a human touch to every single communication that you put out,” she says.

What impact are we seeing as a result of this crisis? 

Jane says, “I think the long term impact depends on how you manage your credibility during this time. With any crisis, generally the rules are to be honest, be consistent, and communicate all the time. Even when you don’t have things to say, come out and communicate.” She says that people often make up their own scenarios in the absence of information, because it’s human nature to want to fill in the blanks. Because of that, the best thing you can do is to communicate often, and be as consistent and honest that you can. “When information changes, say ‘now we have new information, so here’s what we’re going to do now’. And, when you don’t get it right, explain why you didn’t, and keep moving with honesty and transparency,” Jane says. “In the absence of information, especially in a pandemic like this, where we really don’t know what’s going to happen. You really have to lead with your values. What does your company and your brand value? If you do it right, there should be a better loyalty to your brand.”

In a time like this, what should our leaders be doing? 

Jane explains that business leaders take their cues from government leaders, and global leaders aren’t being consistent right now. “They’re not following the guidelines of the WHO. The WHO had tests ready, pretty much immediately by January, that went out to most countries. We started wide-spread testing in China, South Korea, and Europe, but the US refused that test and wanted to make their own test. So, that delays data coming in from the US. Not being able to track the outbreak creates confusion. Leaders say it’s a hoax, and then they say it’s not … Leaders are sending mixed messages, and that causes business leaders to send mixed messages. In turn, that makes their customers, and their employees react in mixed ways. So, some employees and customers are going along with the Shelter in Place. But some are adamant that it’s a hoax, because that’s what they’ve heard. It makes it hard to contain not just the virus, but everyone’s emotions. This is why I say to lead with your values. If your company values making money at all costs, maybe you are going to ask people to stay at work. If your company really values health and safety for your employees and customers, you’re going to lead with caution.”

The Responsibility of Companies

It’s important for companies to take responsibility at this time – but how? How should companies be using their social media, for example, where so much misinformation is going around? “The most important thing to do with misinformation is to counter it,” Jane says. “During a pandemic, you want to cut off misinformation as quickly as possible. You can control your own company’s information, and how you’re responding, why you’re responding, what sources you’re relying on, and what government laws you’re trying to adhere to. Just be crystal clear about that. And, this is why you don’t want to automate your social media, because it can get out of control really fast. You want to have human beings posting, moderating and shutting down misinformation as soon as possible.”

Jane says that flexibility in business models really helps businesses to stay productive. “If you can move your model from one need that’s down, to another need that’s up, that can be a way to do good. I saw a driver put up a sheet of plastic between the front seat and the passenger seat. You could see through it and everything, but it was clearly about making passengers feel safe. They put up a little sign on the plastic saying ‘love can penetrate plastic,’ so it was really lovely. The more we can do to feel positive and help, the more people will feel better about supporting your business.”

Privacy Rights in the Face of COVID-19

Jane explains that during a pandemic, you need the data to understand the spread, and what we do with that data is what’s at risk. “For example, Trump announced that Google had set up a website where you can give your symptoms and information, and they would determine whether or not you’d need to get tested or not. The first minute I heard that, I thought, ‘Am I going to have to hand over all this data to Google?’ Their business model is to sell that data. Do I feel comfortable giving my health information to a company like Google?’ It turns out that this was fake news, but it’s still a privacy concern. Being able to monitor where the spread is, through anonymous tests, is important, but having to hand over personal information is not okay, and that’s a scary proposition. If you look at the US, there’s a regulation that’s trying to go through right now, which is to acquire science to publicise all the backing data for new regulation. Your personal data could then get published.”

She continues, “In 9/11, we gave up a lot of privacy and surveillance rights, and we’ve never gotten them back. It was supposed to be a temporary situation, but we’ve never gotten them back. They’ve only gotten worse. That really opens the door for more erosion of privacy rights. I’m afraid that a pandemic like this will erode privacy rights even more. There was this threat in enforcement to use location tracking data in your cell phone, to see who’s moving, and where. That’s a double-edged sword, because we need to stop the spread of the disease, but are we going to give up our right to privacy in the process?”

What does the future look like?

Jane thinks we’ll see changes in how people work. “With everybody working from home, I think we’ll see more flexibility in the workforce, and people being able to stay home when they need to,” she says. “Now that everyone has had to stay home, I think there will be more compassion for caregivers who have to take care of children, or elderly parents. I hope we’ll see change like that. I think the biggest change, that is up for grabs, is conferences. For those of us who have relied on business through conferences, this may be a whole new world. People who are running conferences may need to rethink how we gather people.”

As her final words for the show, she says, “Don’t underestimate the value of communication. Lead, and step up.”

This really is the time for companies to step up and lead with their values. We hope to see many businesses out there taking a stand and speaking up about the COVID-19 situation, and share what we can do to help. It’s important to stay informed and stop any spread of misinformation. The virus is contagious, but so is panic. We recommend reading up on what WHO is saying about the situation.

We hope that you’re staying safe, wherever you are, and that you’ll continue to follow the guidelines from your government. We’re all in this together.

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