By Frank Sherman
As some hard hit cities start to report a slowing of COVID-19 cases and express hope that we’ve indeed reached the much anticipated peak, our federal and state government leaders are struggling with the challenge of reopening the economy. The same debates on balancing public health and economic pain are playing out in corporate boardrooms and at small business owners’ kitchen tables. The slow response and lack of leadership at the federal level has not only shifted decision-making to states and local levels, they force the private sector to face the dilemma of when and how to bring back their employees, supply chains, and customers.
As faith communities, we recognize that the pandemic has put a spotlight on economic inequalities and a fragile social safety net leaving vulnerable communities to bear the economic brunt of the crisis (Human Rights Watch, March 19, 2020). In the U.S., four decades of income and wealth disparity was partly hidden by record low unemployment but is now exposed in unemployment insurance and food pantry lines. While many Americans were already knee-deep in debt pre-pandemic, half of households have no emergency savings at all (WSJ, April 15, 2020). Nearly 30 million children who count on schools for free or low-cost breakfast, lunch, snacks and sometimes dinner are now at home (NPR, March 20, 2020). Thankfully Congress has shifted most of the disaster relief to the workers and individuals this time rather than solely to companies as done in 2009.
As companies start to report their first-quarter financials, the message is clear: this recession is going to be bad! What will be the corporate response to these unprecedented times? The pandemic and impending recession have created an urgent opportunity for CEOs and corporate leaders to put the promise of purpose-driven leadership and stakeholder capitalism into practice (Just Capital).
I certainly noticed a change in the tone and focus of corporate communications, both internal and external. Instead of productivity and new product launches, companies are talking about employee and customer safety, corporate values, and community support. Examples such as Walmart’s enhanced paid sick leave, McDonald’s free meals for students and seniors, GM and Ford retooling auto assembly lines for ventilators (WAPO, April 4, 2020), Amazon prioritizing shipments of medical supplies and household staples (WSJ, March 17, 2020), and Thank You For Not Riding Uber (YouTube, April 8, 2020) appear to be empathetic. The public perception of whether these corporate responses are authentic or ‘COVID washing’ may depend on whether the company was purpose-driven before the crisis.
At the end of the day (…and there will be an end to this crisis), employees, consumers and society in general will ask these companies and their leaders one simple question: How did you respond to the Coronavirus pandemic? And when the corporate marketing machine restarts, let’s hope we have long memories.