Bouncing back with lessons learned from our COVID-19 Spring

Rob Batherson

How do we bounce back after huge parts of our economy were shut down in the fight against the COVID-19 global pandemic? 

That’s the question businesses, other organizations and individuals are grappling with.

We’ve seen businesses closing, suspending activities or reducing operations; people losing their jobs or seeing their livelihoods threatened; households trying to combine work, life and home schooling; and normal human interactions being replaced with Zoom calls, line ups, physical distancing and wearing masks.

In the midst of all this, we’ve witnessed the death of more than 7,800 Canadians (and counting) to COVID-19, with the very real expectation of a second and third wave of the virus in 2020 or 2021 before a vaccine is available.

Meanwhile, here in Nova Scotia, our COVID-19 spring consisted of mourning the loss of 22 innocent lives in the worst mass shooting in our country’s history, the loss of several Nova Scotians who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy off the coast of Greece, the disappearance of a three-year old boy in Truro and the death of a former Halifax journalist who served as public affairs officer with the Snowbirds.  The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the United States has also renewed important, but difficult, conversations around racism in Nova Scotia and Canada.

Blue outline of Nova Scotia on aqua background with muted red heart in the centre of the province symbolic of NS Strong


Despite all the sadness, loss and stresses of the last three months, slowly, but surely, we see signs of progress and reasons for optimism.

Most Canadian jurisdictions are achieving success in “flattening the curve” and provinces are rolling out their own plans to gradually return to some form of normal over the next 18 months. 

Companies have stepped up to change their business to reflect market needs.  We saw that with the iconic clothing manufacturer Stanfield’s replacing their usual lines with protective gowns for front-line medical professionals.

With heavy restrictions on their physical locations, companies turned to their online and digital channels to generate revenue in a different way.  One of Trampoline’s clients realized the same level of online sales in the month of March (which really just amounted to 2-3 weeks of heavy restrictions) as they would have during the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays.

Our governments have generally set aside partisan differences, jurisdictional divides and bureaucratic barriers to inject necessary financial support into our economy.

That’s not to underestimate the full economic impact of COVID-19.  

Indeed, shutting down society, in many ways, is a lot easier than getting things going again, especially when people are worried about so much.

That’s where having a trusted communications advisor helping companies and other organizations pick themselves off the floor is essential.

What are some of the communication lessons COVID-19 has taught us to help organizations find their way to what global consulting giant McKinsey has called the “next normal”?

1) Leaders need to be front and centre with the facts and straight talk

Most public opinion surveys are giving high marks to our elected leaders and public health heads.  By and large, the support they have received to date is due to their visibility, their clarity and consistency of message, their use of the best facts at their disposal and their willingness to change course if necessary and explain why.  Communications advisors are uniquely positioned to help leaders distill complexity into an understandable story to deliver to either external or internal audiences with confidence.

2) Ditch old excuses against trying new approaches and listening to different voices

Except for some public health experts, nobody actually had a playbook for how a virus like COVID-19 would affect the world, Canada or our own community.  Communicators sometimes act as a voice of caution around a decision-making table.  This can be useful, but it can also pigeon-hole the communications function as one that lacks imagination.  

Why not be a champion for innovation?  Be the person who fights against stasis and inaction and proposes new solutions for the future.  

Are you also making sure that voices that have sometimes been, at best, ignored are getting a place in the conversation?  With the economic impact of COVID-19 expected to have a disproportionate impact on women, visible minorities and vulnerable populations, organizations are going to be challenged more than ever to be responsible and inclusive – at the boardroom table, in the workplace and in dealing with customers.

3) Ensure your organization’s communications channels are truly customer focused

With the lack of physical offices and traditional “bricks and mortar” retail, many more transactions moved to digital platforms.  Is your organization ready to support this sustained traffic over the long term?  Does your organization have the appropriate resources in place to engage with customers on their concerns or escalate problems to the right people in the organization who can take corrective action?  

4) Help organizations identify growth opportunities

When COVID-19 hit, many business plans were thrown in the trash can.  Sectors like health care are seeing a range of new opportunities for growth.  Others such as travel, live entertainment and restaurants could be years away from some form of sustained recovery.  Are you helping your colleagues identify growth opportunities in the middle of this upheaval?  

5) Governments matter

Out of necessity, big government is back.  Regardless of the inevitable ideological and financial debate about whether this is positive for the long term, it is today’s reality and likely to stay that way for some time.  Does your organization understand how the governments you deal with (federally, provincially and municipally) have re-engineered themselves to see through an economic recovery, without jeopardizing public health?  

It’s never too late to ask for help.