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COVID-19 and The New American Zeitgeist

In Crisis Management, Public Affairs by Digital Strategies

Everything is going to be different, and if your business interacts and communicates with the public, you will return to a brand-new world when the pandemic eases. For most Americans, this is the most severe challenge in their lifetimes, and the country that emerges from these unsettled days will be wildly different in priorities, attitudes and behaviors. 

Already, the best of America is emerging in every corner. First responders are just wrapping handkerchiefs around their faces if they run out of masks and putting their own health at risk to defend that of others. Seniors are being led to the front of checkout lines, or staying in their cars and homes while others do their shopping. Where there is fear, there is also compassion. Where there is despair, there is also confidence and personal accountability. Welcome to the Greatest Generation, 21st Century edition. Very glad to meet you. 

This post on hyperlocal website NextDoor encapsulates the new American altruism: 

“it wasn’t long ago families and friends were fighting and going their separate ways over politics. I just saw a post from a lady I don’t know who has to go to (some retail stores). She wanted to know if anyone needs anything and to send her your lists. Another needed some lemons.. I have a box of them and was able to set them by my gate for her to pick up. Another posted… just moved here and are unpacking. Found a big pkg of TP. If anyone is in need I can spare a few rolls. Point being… when it really counts, we are always there for each other. No one is asking who did you vote for before helping each other. We will always have the horders (sic) but for every one horder there are ten beautiful people ready to share.”

As a crisis consultant for decades, I have seen many transformational events that remade individual businesses or categories. But as greater swaths of America are confined to home, as simple tasks like food buying become fraught and millions become immediately unemployed or underemployed, it’s clear that America is changed.

Here are some early ways the culture has shifted tectonically in recent weeks:

  1. Cynicism towards broad platitudes and corporate speak has never been greater. No one cares about your “best wishes and hopes.” The most effective and loved communicators in the current crisis have been authentic, honest, and plain spoken. They have been direct and optimistic, but unafraid to tell us what we need to hear. 
  • Welcome to post-partisan America. We will still have our politics and our differences, but those who attempt to sow division and discontent are on the way out. Corporate social responsibility initiatives will now start with kindness and respect for all. In a new business landscape with so much work to do, every voice will have value, and best ideas will be based on merit, not correctness. Luxury clothing brands are making surgical gowns. Car manufacturers are building ventilators. If you unleashed the full intellectual capital of every member of your organization, what could you do differently?
  • The new celebrity is the ordinary hardworking American. They grocery store stock clerk is now your role model. The truck driver, the farmer, the people who made your dinner possible. First responders? Heroes. They will be thanked the way we have thanked soldiers “for their service.” Except this time, we will really mean it, and say it with a lump in our national throat. 
  • Triviality has been reverted to its role as low value entertainment. The images of young spring break revelers ignoring the threat of the virus to continue the party was met with universal revulsion and more than a little outrage. A culture grounded in selfishness has shifted suddenly in the direction of common good, and we will be looking for a new balance. So will your organization. 
  • Across the arts, the crucible of our quarantine experience will seed a new body of work grounded in what we are learning about how little of our own environment we can control, and how we are at our best when we work together. In months, we will look at the recent pop culture touchstones as anachronisms, as artifacts from the time before we learned what matters. Cynicism is out; optimism is the new irony. 
  • It’s far too soon to tell if any of the drugs rushed into testing and trials will be effective in mitigating COVID-19. But if one or more does, it will not go unforgotten that every one of them was developed through investment and human capital delivered under the promise of a free enterprise system that rewards those who are successful in taking risks that push the boundaries of human knowledge. A new post-partisan patriotism will result, and it will not be limited to a single party.  

As business ramps back up, you will be looking at a new American zeitgeist. You will be rewarded for finding ways to connect with an American sentiment that has changed faster than any time before in our history. It’s too soon to tell what the new best practices will be, but here’s a start:

  1. Maintain your marketing plan but revisit your creative. Much of it already seems irrelevant or tone deaf, and we are only a couple of weeks in. It’s better than acceptable to deliver slightly underproduced new creative. It speaks authentically. 
  • Is your CEO qualified for this new corporate communications landscape? Is your comms team? Your old scripts are dead. You need a new authentic voice. Find it now and start using it. Because different regions will experience the coronavirus crisis at different times and intensities, the more local, the better. 
  • Brand loyalties are about to be redefined in a way that will persist for a long time. Winners will be those who helped, made a difference, connected. There has never been a time where empowering your staff to problem solve and engage locally is more important than today. 
  • Grand gestures are less important than local assistance. A $3 million donation to a food bank will be better spent as 3,000 $1000 donations closer to where your customers are. Yes, it’s harder. Do it anyway. 
  • TV medical shows are appearing unannounced at hospitals with every prop mask, gown and face shield they have. Unconventional… and unforgettable. What do you have today that can be repurposed to help? World War II formed the loyalty choices of a generation that persisted for decades. 

No one imagined just weeks ago the changes that would overwhelm American life. That is the definition of crisis… unexpected and urgent danger. But they have not overwhelmed the American spirit, and as we weather the weeks ahead, it’s not too soon to begin to plan for the opportunities that will grow from these troubling days. 

Brian Glicklich Is CEO of Digital Strategies, a crisis management consultancy in Los Angeles.