How to Move From Action to Outcomes in the COVID-19 Era
The first phase of this pandemic was FEAR. What the hell is going on in the world? What is this virus all about? How will it affect me and my loved ones? The media went into overdrive. Every media outlet launched coronavirus daily newsletters and news alerts, with re-hashed “expert opinion” flying around all over the place, as we tried to keep up with an insatiable public appetite for more information. And gradually we started to learn.
FEAR began to gently subside into the second phase of UNDERSTANDING. Stay inside. Self-isolate. Don’t take needless journeys. Wear a mask in public. And you will be OK. As our learning and understanding developed, it started to mutate. First, we learned the basics—it’s a virus, most likely passed through the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch. And, as we become more informed, we grow more confident in our actions and opinion. And as the vast majority of us follow common-sense rules, our human nature kicks in, and many of us are driven by the need to do something to help, to take action, to help solve the issues around us.
So, welcome to phase three; it’s time for ACTION! We understand the broader issues, and we now understand the issues our society is dealing with—breakdown in supply chains, systems, shortages, etc. As humans, particularly those of us lucky enough to live in a democracy, we start to witness the marvels of what makes humans unique; distilleries pivot to become hand sanitizer manufacturers, high school kids are manufacturing 3D-printed face masks, vacuum cleaner manufacturers hack new forms of ventilators and restaurants pivot to community food pantries. And most beautifully perhaps, we stop at specific times of the day across the globe to reflect and thank those who put their lives in danger to help others. It’s truly a marvel to behold.
And the media laps it all up and blurts it back around the world. But not too much, mind you. Publishers remain mindful that negative, polarizing opinion attracts greater reader/viewer numbers than positive, optimistic news (negative news stories typically outnumber optimistic news stories 8:1). For advertising reliant news companies (i.e., most of them), optimism does not sell well.
As the ACTION phase evolves, it becomes messy and inefficient. Our social media feeds are jammed with well-intentioned friends, neighbors and work colleagues asking for donations to help source masks from faraway lands. The ACTION phase solves for the immediacy of critical needs. But it can’t address the longer-term issues of scale. The very nature of our well-intentioned human instincts start to perpetuate new challenges in the supply chain system. Critical goods get stuck in places because logistics companies are jammed trying to prioritize the movement of supplies. In the U.S., we are slaughtering healthy animals for waste because the U.S. supply chain cannot deliver the meat to the market.
And as we progress through to the back end of phase three, the commercialization of this whole pandemic starts to gather pace. We charge headlong into what can best be described as the Corporate Guff Zone. While everyday humans have been learning, understanding and perhaps re-imagining what the new normal could look like, marketing leaders and their army of marketing communications agencies have been feverishly busy, working out how their brand fits into this new world and how they are going to reassure us all of their unwavering relevance and role within these “unsettling times.”
Any American fortunate enough to have watched the NFL draft last week can sit back and relax in a warm glow of sunset skies and reflective music, safe in the knowledge that America’s most unpopular airline will be here for us through thick and thin, and truly appreciates us because “you are why we fly.” And the world’s largest packaged goods manufacturer cares so deeply for frontline medical staff that it’s going to thank them with free soap, which is otherwise available in any local dollar store. And some of the richest medical institutions (hospitals) in the world are running solemn direct response ads because, right now, they desperately need your donations to top up their billion-dollar-plus endowments. As a marketing communications industry, surely we can do better than this?
What matters right now is that we have a medical system that is utterly broken. We have government bailouts being handed out first, not to those most in need, but to the banks’ best customers. We will likely exit this pandemic with an unprecedented 30 million people unemployed in America. The significant low-income communities across America will be decimated, which, in turn, will impact even the wealthiest communities reliant on construction, hospitality and other service industries. The darker side of American opinion might suggest this pandemic to be a form of natural selection. A real-life survival of the fittest, if you like. Let’s not go there right now.
Let’s look ahead as our most optimistic selves, for the next phase—STRATEGIC OUTCOMES. Because through this next phase of the pandemic cycle, we must surely believe that, for a significant number of us, the next normal will not resemble the old normal.
For corporate America, let’s be hopeful that big business recognizes a growing imperative to stand for something that benefits humanity and our planet. This requires companies like Amazon to reapply their best-in-class tech innovative chops to new areas that are entirely alien to their culture—emotional intelligence and empathy.
We have to be hopeful for more authentic and intentional marketing where attention and investment for actual societal benefit finally outweighs the attention and investment that has gone into preaching false promises. Perhaps, next year, we’ll see an end to $2 million Super Bowl ads evangelizing responsible water usage from water-guzzling beverage companies? And as big businesses face unprecedented change, new practices and learning will come from the edges, because the edges are where the best dreamers, innovators and hackers reside—the misfits who opted out of the suffocation of corporate bureaucracy, the activists whose expertise, focus and passion ignore the dream of a weekend house in the Hamptons, the kids who still have flow mind-states, the previously incarcerated who have the best hustle and creative minds, and the disabled communities who, through daily necessity, are the best hackers. The smartest business leaders will lean into these communities because these communities thrive in adversity and the unknown. And the next normal is very much unknown.
For most us, as individuals and communities, this next phase is more nuanced than the phases behind us. Whereas before we have largely followed the rules of our civic leaders, how we choose to gather, socialize, travel, spend and share our wealth in the future will be set by our own standards.
As families and individuals, how we choose to address mental health, visual and non-visual disabilities, domestic violence and basic food security in our communities is everything, because all of these issues interconnect. All of these imperfections in life are what make us human. Through all the recent adversity, we have discovered and learned much about ourselves, our loved ones and our communities. We will all remember those great moments of appreciation for our frontline first responders and health workers, the home cooking, the local small business shopping hacks, the family games, the homeschooling, the walks, green-collar work, the awakening to wildlife and the quiet…
In both our personal and business lives, what matters most is that we remember how we felt through these moments and that we build this learning into both personal and business STRATEGIC OUTCOMES.
So, let’s look forward to this next phase with hope and optimism. This next phase will be longer, with more nuanced waves of change and with many challenges yet to unfold. But it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And we all owe it to ourselves to carpe the crap out of this diem.
Eamonn Store is the founder and CEO of FairShare Consulting.