As companies plan for what’s to come in the weeks and months ahead, one thing is clear: when and how business can move beyond COVID-19 is dependent on the healthcare community and its progress on testing, contact tracing, treatment and vaccine development. To offer a window into these aspects of COVID-19 response, Page held a Hot Topics call for Page and Page Up members featuring perspectives from several organizations - a healthcare system that treated the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S., one of the largest national clinical laboratories in the U.S., a leader in RNA-based drug discovery and a leader in messenger RNA-based vaccines. Here are some takeaways from that discussion, led by Orest Holubec, chief communication officer for Providence.
- There’s mission, and then there’s mission. When your organization’s work might save lives, literally tomorrow, the pressure on the company’s team – and on Comms – goes to a different level. One panelist’s firm has been working on COVID-19 testing options since it first appeared in China, releasing America’s first commercial test on March 5 and creating the first at-home collection kit to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA. One’s scientists are working on RNA-based therapies and another’s have created the first messenger RNA COVID vaccine candidate, currently in clinical trials. For these firms, the unprecedented urgency and pace of innovation produce new communications challenges. Everything the company does – from its labs to its supply chains – is the subject of intense global media interest. Its doctors and researchers are in constant demand from the media. And that can then drive major policy choices – as did an executive’s planned appearance on CNN, which wound up generating what became a global “100 Million Masks” challenge.
- Understanding and managing the “pan” in pandemic. Every single company in the world is dealing with the same crisis, however, not every company is central to the response. On one hand, it’s critical to not be “tone deaf” – not to downplay the subject that is top-of-mind for everyone. On the other, the healthcare space deals with very long timelines of products and patients that urgently need non-coronavirus care. Some companies are working on products that are coming to market after 6 to 10 years. The needs, trajectories and importance of efforts before 2020 remain valid. Learning how to manage this tension – between being adequate both to the moment and to what lies beyond it – may be one of the key legacies of communications in the time of the pandemic.
- A crisis can change your perspective. Government is essential to making societal-scale decisions on matters of life and death. During an era of relative peace and prosperity, many came to believe that markets were enough. But when we confront a global crisis – of security (as in 9/11) or finance (as in 2008) or health (as today) – some start to question market fundamentalism (reflected also in the Business Roundtable’s endorsement of stakeholder capitalism).
- Meeting the media’s insatiable need for information. Companies that have largely been out of the public eye – including some that deliberately sought to remain so – are now swamped with calls from reporters and officials One has fielded 100 media calls a day, and on one day received calls from two different New York Times reporters working on different stories. Another described the need to limit senior executives’ response to daily media requests – simply to ensure that their time pursuing life-saving cures would not be consumed answering journalists’ inquiries.
- We need to look after those who are stretching to help. The guiding principles of these companies have been to be authoritative, realistic, reassuring, humble and authentically empathetic. As one put it, “I have been reminded of the Page Principle that we should conduct communications as if the organization’s future depended on it.” But while employees take seriously (and personally) their responsibility to help, leaders must look after their safety and wellbeing, too. One CCO described the establishment of “brain doubles,” allowing employees to disconnect entirely for a break.
Special thanks to moderator Orest Holubec for leading this discussion, and to Pattie Kushner of LabCorp, Roslyn Patterson of Ionis Pharmaceuticals and Ray Jordan, retired CCO of Amgen, Inc, now consulting as Lead, Corporate Affairs at Moderna Inc., for their perspectives.