By: Barbara Laidlaw and Josiah Adams
The holiday season is upon us and with it, a surge in COVID-19 cases. Since the beginning of November, there have been more than 3.1 million new cases – the highest number for any single month. According to a Washington University in St. Louis model, 20 million Americans could be infected with COVID-19 by January 2021.
More widespread testing has driven some of the uptick. But the reality is transmission has accelerated in virtually every region of the country with no end in sight. Contributing factors to this spike in cases include a premature reopening of restaurants, offices and other high-risk locations; a lack of alignment on preventative measures at the state level; and now, holiday travel.
Small businesses that narrowly avoided economic ruin in spring are now on the brink of collapse due to the fallout from the resurgence of the virus. Without consistent guidance from state or federal governments, nor adequate support, businesses throughout America now face difficult decisions they will have to largely make on their own. These decisions carry significant weight, and incorrect decisions could expose brands to undue reputational risk.
Despite having lived through the pandemic for nearly three quarters of a year, much remains unknown about the spread of the virus or when some level of normalcy will return. To be prepared for what comes next, we must look to the past and learn from what worked and what didn’t.
One of the most critical lessons we learned during the first wave of COVID-19 was we must take this virus seriously. It seems obvious now. But in spring, many businesses were slow to shift to remote work or institute changes that would prevent the spread of the virus. These types of missteps exposed brands to countless reputational risks and potential crises. Regardless of industry, the appearance that your brand has not done everything in its power to curtail the spread of COVID-19 among employees, customers and the communities you operate in is a major risk to your business reputation. And it’s one that will likely be difficult to overcome in a short period of time.
Additionally, this will cause irreparable and long-term harm to employee morale and recruitment capacity. Throughout this pandemic, businesses have focused on how they treat employees. Creating innovative remote work schedules, increasing benefits for front-line workers, and improving health and safety protocols are just a few examples of the many changes companies have made to keep their employees safe and productive. Conversely, companies that did not attempt to improve their employees’ morale and safety received a significant amount of negative attention.
Those that established themselves as leaders and innovators in their COVID-19 response will benefit in the long-term in their ability to show the quality of their work environment and the care their leaders put into the safety and well-being of their employees. Those that struggled with this will be at a disadvantage moving forward, particularly in industries that received the most attention, such as tech, retail and food service. Making informed decisions based on the lessons learned in the early phases of this pandemic will be crucial to ensure you maintain brand reputation through the difficulties ahead.
The FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has prompted many to feel the end of the pandemic is near. The first American immunizations began on Dec. 14, starting a process that will take months to complete. The vaccine is a light at the end of a very long tunnel, and it will take some time to return a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy. Even by optimistic projections, widespread access to the vaccine will not be a reality until late spring to early summer. Because of this, brands should make mid-to-long-term plans that incorporate lockdowns and additional safety mandates that make in-person work difficult.
For some industries, this may mean extending remote work. For others, where in-person work is required, this may mean improving safety protocols or ensuring existing protocols are strictly adhered to through more frequent training and communication from leaders. Making decisions based on caution will not only protect your brand, but it will also protect your people and the communities you work and live in.
As we look to a post-pandemic world, actions taken today will likely resonate with current employees and customers as well as future ones. As a second wave puts our hospitals on the brink and our nation on edge, we should take this moment as an opportunity to reflect on what we have learned, apply what we know are effective strategies for navigating this period and consider how we plan for the coming weeks and months.
How your company managed the COVID-19 crisis will be a future reputational benchmark for businesses within every industry. Because of this, ensuring your customers and employees are safe should be a top priority, as it will be a determining factor in your brand’s long-term reputation.
If you’d like to learn more about how our global reputation risk management team can support you during this time, get in touch with Barbara Laidlaw at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barbara Laidlaw brings 25 years of experience developing and running programs that help companies prepare, protect and defend their brand reputation through global and national events, recalls, litigation, data breaches, regulatory issues and labor disputes.
Josiah Adams works on Allison + Partners’ global risk + issues management team and provides federal, state and local policy insights.