With the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. raging, it’s hard to find a moment to think about what our world will look like when the dust settles on this devastating health crisis. COVID-19 has and continues to pose an unprecedented challenge and regardless of partisan identity, Americans are seeing that challenge first and foremost as a health crisis.
It hasn’t always been that way. Our research focused on tracking beliefs about COVID-19 in early- and mid-2020 uncovered connections between Americans’ partisan identity and perceptions of what type of crisis we were facing. Simply put—early in the year, Republicans were more likely to see COVID-19 as an economic crisis, while Democrats more likely to see it as a health crisis.
As the fall and winter wore on, we saw a shift: Americans started believing COVID-19 was a health crisis more than an economic one, with a corresponding drop in those saying it was equally a health and economic crisis.
So what’s next? We all hope that as the depressingly high daily death tolls subside, and vaccination totals increase, we’ll be able to get back to normal. But while we may be able to visit our loved ones or step into a restaurant without fear, the reality is that the long-term economic impact of this crisis will have the spotlight to itself.
Corporate leaders need to start thinking now about how they want their companies to show up in that new reality, because the responsibility that corporate America has to their employees, their communities, and the nation will be a defining question of 2021.
There are three core economic topics that communications leaders should start working on now to help future-proof their businesses:
The growing disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street
With Wall Street analysts predicting calm financial waters and continued stock market growth in 2021, we can expect continued frustration with the clear and present disconnect between how Wall Street thrives and Main Street struggles. The labor market clearly has a long way to go on the economic road to recovery, and we can expect a significant reform agenda on financial issues under a Biden administration, especially if Gary Gensler, a progressive former financial regulator and banker, is confirmed to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission.
- Be mindful that investor communications do not exist in a vacuum. What you communicate to the financial community, especially during times of economic tension, will form the foundation of your corporate narrative for all stakeholders.
- Focus on investments that will allow you to succeed in the future. Investors, employees, customers and consumers need stability, so it will be well-received to talk about how you’re using your short-term success to build a strong foundation they can rely on.
- Elevate compelling voices from within, diversifying who carries your message both within and beyond the C-Suite.
Heightened employee concern about the future and the need to engage early and often
The U.S. economy shed 140,000 jobs in December — the first month of decline since the earliest months of the pandemic. Our recovery has reversed as the pandemic has worsened and Congress has consistently failed to act.
The Biden administration will face significant economic challenges with the end of the pandemic still out of sight and political crisis consuming Washington yet again. Uncertainty about job security and burnout are real, and discord from inside (whether organic or organized) can be a killer for morale and your business’s ability to thrive.
- Clearly and consistently communicate your values and how they inform your business decisions. Start building the muscle now so when employees voice concern or mobilize to apply pressure, you have built a strong foundation.
- Understand your liabilities related to controversial topics and government connections (such as donations to “Stop the Steal”–supporting members of Congress). The Project Lincoln divestment campaign is just the beginning of external pressure that will demand greater transparency and alignment with values as to how companies operate in the political arena.
- Commit now to regularly engaging your people on critical topics of a sociopolitical relevance. 2021 will be a year in which companies are expected to have a point of view on topics that go beyond the business of their business. Enlist your employees in helping you form, articulate, and defend your positions.
The high expectations for companies to have a positive impact in their communities, especially in the absence of trusted government institutions
As a country, we no longer have faith in government’s ability to solve big (or sometimes even small) problems. And trust in once-revered institutions continues to nosedive following the 2020 election. As Axios reported, “business is the only institution that is now perceived as being both ethical and competent enough to solve the world’s problems. CEOs are the only societal leaders trusted to tell the truth and fix problems.”
Americans are struggling by almost every metric and the urgency of our challenges on everything from poverty and hunger to the environment is only increasing. Relatively small investments in community-focused corporate social responsibility (CSR) will not only make an impact on the ground, but also build credibility for companies in the short-term and down the line. That’s especially true when the problems companies tackle, and talk about tackling, are aligned with national priorities connected to but not impacting a company’s bottom line.
- Relevant social impact work isn’t optional. Even if the mission is long-term, companies need to be in the game, living their purpose beyond the core of their business. Employees, investors, and policy makers expect it. Pick your topics, understand your potential impact, and start making investments.
- Don’t go it alone – engage your network (suppliers, customers, investors) to build a more impactful and resilient social impact program. Increase your chances of being seen as an agent of change by bringing others along with you.
- Resist the urge to talk about yourself and the size of your contribution. Talking about investments puts you in a sea of CSR sameness. Instead focus on the impact, showing not telling, and deprioritize your own logo and name in communications as much as possible.
We may see light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, but we have a long road to recovery ahead. Rebuilding an economy that meets the persistent needs of “Main Street” will take center stage soon enough, and companies need to be ready. That means having communications in place that reconcile the Wall Street/Main Street divide, programs established that embrace and support employee priorities, and investments made in precedent-setting programs dedicated to making relevant and lasting positive social impact. Doing these three things now can ensure that a company is ready for the pendulum swing from health crisis to economic crisis in 2021.
Purple is actively partnering with companies and industries to navigate the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for the future that will come after, bringing deep experience helping the world’s best-known companies navigate the world’s toughest challenges. Please reach out to author Nate Byer or any member of our Purple team to let us know how we can support you.
By Nate Byer | Managing Director | firstname.lastname@example.org