1 April 2020

Life after COVID-19: a reputational reckoning is coming

Industry

by Jenna Keighley 

Just a few short weeks ago we were asking each other to “be kind”, like it was a new concept for the social media age. And in some ways it was, with the days where “we could leave our doors unlocked, neighbours would help one another and kids could play in the street” left squarely back in the 50’s and 60’s of ye olden (forgotten) days. Fast-forward to today and European governments are considering martial law to keep people off the streets, Boris is channelling his best Churchill and both businesses and individuals are coming together with a community spirit that I wouldn’t have thought possible in 2019.

As cafés, restaurants and farm shops close across the country, business owners are pivoting their business models, often ignoring the financial hardship facing them to help the most vulnerable. In the quiet Buckinghamshire countryside, Orchard View Farm has closed its café and has been focusing on delivering meals and essentials to local residents who are self-isolating or who simply can’t get out. The website states “We cherish our fantastic community and we are here to help you!”. However, the fact that the management team also felt the need to publicly state “our prices are remaining the same and we will not be profiteering” is a sad reminder that whilst some people step up for their fellow human in times of need, others see it as an opportunity – like those “enterprising” Colvin brothers who drove across the US buying up every bottle of hand sanitiser they could lay their mitts on before attempting to sell it at 10x the price on Amazon. Matt Colvin (and *that T-shirt* – I mean come on… did he not see the irony??) has become the public face of capitalism at its ugliest – the guy willing to make a quick buck by cornering the market on a key product needed to protect public health, and then complaining when Amazon removed his ability to profit off the panic.

However, The Guardian’s recent article, “The tech execs who don’t agree with ‘soul-stealing’ coronavirus safety measures” also highlighted how out of touch some companies are with the reality of the new world in which we find ourselves. As a result of the pandemic, we’re staring down the barrel of an economic recession that’s been likened by some pundits to the Great Depression. Believe me, I can understand that the fear of such a situation can feel overwhelming. However, one quote will be indelibly etched into the public legacy of Michael Saylor, CEO of Microstrategy, a US company with 2,000 employees: “1 out of 500 people will pass on a bit sooner, or not, or die from a celebrated disease instead of just old age.”

His 3,000-word “Thoughts on Covid-19” left nobody in any doubt that Michael Saylor places profit above the welfare of his employees, their families and the wider community, casually dismissing the potential death count as a minor price to pay to keep businesses moving in the US.

When we get through this, and we will get through this period of fear, uncertainty and economic retrenchment, we will have learned more than we possibly wanted to about our leaders and the companies we work with, for and alongside. Their statements and actions will not be forgotten and will form the base materials from which their post-pandemic reputations are forged. Empathy, care and humanity are qualities that the C-Suite and Board must place ahead of maximising profits now and must underpin all communications, both internal and external, if companies are to survive the post-COVID-19 reputational reckoning.