Corporate Resilience and the Coming Second Wave

A curious thing happened as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged into the third month of lockdown. The early, oddly euphoric, we’re-all-in-this-togetherness began to fray, replaced by a growing sense of malaise. 

Initially, we were all prepared to do our part to contribute to the effort: abandoning plans, staying home, staying safe, banging pots and pans at 7 pm in a show of unity and support. 

But as the weeks dragged on, the words of BP CEO Tony Hayward following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began to be whispered from balconies and bedrooms across the land: “I just want my life back.”

With the promise of the Great Economic Re-opening and the fine weather of early May, people began to not just whisper, but act as though we could get “back to normal” again. 

Mostly based on instinct and what I’m seeing in my own community, I began to think of this transition as the False Hope Phase of the pandemic. “If we can only hang on a little longer, we can go back to the way things were.”

But is that correct?

To try to help answer that question, I turned to a survey recently completed by the Earnscliffe research team led by Allan Gregg, Doug Anderson and Stephanie Constable. Here are what I consider some of the more interesting numbers to come out of that study.

Half of respondents believe COVID-19 is the biggest crisis Canada has faced since WWII, and 57% of Canadians say COVID-19 is now the most important issue in the country. No surprise there.

The stat that would appear to support my “false hope” theory is that 58% of respondents just want everything to go back to the way it was. But, paradoxically, 72% see the crisis as an opportunity to make major changes in Canadian society. (The research team has an interesting theory about this paradox, and I highly recommend watching their fascinating discussion.) 

So, yes, while people may want their own lives to not change much, they have greater aspirations for society as a whole. Looking forward, they expect much more from their political and corporate leadership. 

For example, 75% believe companies should put the public good before profit, 63% prefer corporate Canada to actually be Canadian-owned, and 60% want to see companies contributing to the future Canadian economy.

And when it comes to what Canadians want to hear from Corporate Canada, almost two-thirds say the most important thing for organizations to communicate is what they are doing for their employees and customers. The last thing they want to hear from companies (18%) is that it’s business as usual. 

So, is this the False Hope Phase? I actually don’t think it is. But it’s definitely an inflection point. 

British Columbia’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said recently: “The optimist in me would like to think that maybe it will go away, and the virus will mutate and won't become worse. But you know what? We've never had a pandemic in recorded history that has not had
a second wave.”

So, what are some of the impacts we – and you – can expect to experience during the almost certain second wave, based on our experiences during the first phase?

First of all, there is a very real likelihood that the financial and employment impacts we saw during phase one will be repeated – without the benefit of a government bailout. That’s done. There’s no more cash in the cookie jar.

What about our employees and contractors? What are we doing now to prepare them for phase two? Do we even talk to them, or is that HR’s job? 

The data shows that our stakeholders – our customers, our communities, our employees – are just as worried as we are. But they’re willing to be somewhat patient, as long as they see us making good decisions and keeping them informed – and they’re looking for us to demonstrate leadership. 

Who is falling through the cracks? Phase one demonstrated some of the key vulnerabilities in our social safety net. Are we going to do something about that, or are we content to let some in society continue to be left behind?

The mental trauma and anguish many of us experienced during the first wave threatens to drown us in a second wave. What are we doing to prepare ourselves and our organizations to withstand the psychological challenges ahead?

You know what? Sometimes crises offer opportunity. Maybe now is the time to put the old playbook away and take the opportunity to be the ones to give Canadians what they’re telling us they want. 

Take the time to re-evaluate everything: how did you do things pre-COVID? What worked, what didn’t? What worked and didn’t during the first wave? What can you discard, and what can you amplify?

Take this opportunity to demonstrate inclusive leadership at your organization’s decision-making tables – whatever your organization, and wherever the decisions are made.

As a professional communicator, one of my pet peeves is the misalignment (or non-alignment) of HR and communications. How is it that we think our internal relationships should be managed under a completely different mandate than our external relationships? And by two completely different business units that rarely speak? The re-alignment of HR and communications is not only an opportunity, but a necessity.

And speaking of external relationships, your stakeholders need you to communicate clearly and fairly. The data shows the hunger among the Canadian public for meaningful change in the way we do business. Now is the time to connect your organization to what matters to them.

As the ads all say: we’re in this together. So, now more than ever there is an opportunity to reach out across organizations to move actions to the benefit of all. Will you take up this challenge – the challenge of our times – or will you stand by and let your organization get swamped by the second wave?

About the Author:

Cam McAlpine is a Principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a leading national communications, public affairs and research firm. He provides strategic counsel to senior leaders and executives in the practice areas of strategic communications, issues management, crisis communications and stakeholder engagement.
Cam serves on the CPRS National Board of Directors and was awarded the CPRS Shield of Public Service in 2019 for his volunteer work in the field of mental health.