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P100 Podcast: Life and business in the days of COVID-19

March 18, 2020

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We’re living through an unprecedented time in American history. Businesses are closed, schools are shuttered, and gatherings are canceled, all because of an invisible, infectious agent that our modern world hasn’t been able to match — not yet, anyway.

Marking the unique circumstances, we spent the most recent episode of the P100 Podcast discussing the effects of COVID-19 on daily life (including our own), how people and businesses can help their communities, and how they can communicate during a crisis.

If you’re hitting the download button or streaming from your “office away from the office,” thank you for listening and stay safe.

 

Full Transcript:

Paul:

Welcome back to a special edition of the P100 podcast, the audio companion to the Pittsburgh 100 e-zine. This episode, solely focused on COVID-19, the coronavirus. I'm Paul Furiga, your cohost along with my colleagues, Dan Stefano…

Dan:

Hey Paul.

Paul:

And Logan Armstrong.

Logan:

Hi Paul.

Paul:

And I want you all to know at home we are practicing safe social distancing. In fact, we are so far away from you while you're listening to us right now ... well, that's another story. Seriously though, given the times that we're in, we thought that we would devote this entire episode of the podcast to understanding how we, as a community can deal with this. I've never seen a situation like this in my lifetime and as Dan and Logan frequently remind me, I'm old.

Dan:

I think you got a point there. I mean, I've tried to think of this in context of my own life. I'm 33 and I would say the most impactful thing that has ever occurred in my lifetime was 9/11.

Paul:

Right.

Dan:

And I was in high school whenever that happened. That was a time whenever the stock market cratered. The next day all air traffic was suspended. It was severely drastic. It took a long time for American life to get back to normal then. Whatever the new normal was, I should say. But this seems like it could be something different. There's a lot of uncertainty in the air, which there was at that time in 2001 for sure, but when we're talking about a virus here, we're talking about something that we don't have a vaccine for, it's a little bit scary right now. And I feel like the streets are even ... it's weird to be walking downtown. At the WordWrite offices here, we're getting ready to practice social distancing and work from home.

Paul:

Work from home, yeah.

Dan:

I could say in some ways it feels similar to those days after 9/11 but it's very different too.

Paul:

Absolutely. Logan.

Logan:

Yeah. And I'm a little younger. So I'm only 22.

Dan:

Little.

Logan:

I was a young kid when 9/11 happened. But also especially with what we're seeing in the market right now, very reminiscent of the 2008 era, which of course this has a few different causes than in 2008. But we've seen people are going crazy at supermarkets…

Paul:

That's right.

Logan:

... and really trying to stockpile, which is good because they're themselves trying to self-quarantine but it's going to be interesting to see how the markets react and how local businesses and business owners will wade through the waters during this time. 

Dan:

Absolutely

Paul:

So a couple of things we wanted to do, number one, we wanted to share some helpful resources, which certainly there are probably, if you're listening to this podcast, you're probably a consumer of a lot of things online and you may already have some favorites, but we are at WordWrite in the business of working with reliable news organizations. So we'll share a few of our favorite go-to sources for local information here in western Pennsylvania.

Paul:

And then we're going to shift gears a bit and we're going to talk about our own experience because it's a crazy situation, but a lot of our clients rely on us for our crisis expertise. In any given year, we handle about 12 major crises, 10 of which you never read about because they're effectively handled. And then two of them, sadly, for whatever reason, they're all over the news. So we actually have a lot of experience in this arena and we are currently working with several of our clients on crises related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Paul:

So first let's talk about some go-to sources here in western Pennsylvania. Dan and I, we share this other disease called being former journalists. Dan, some of your favorite go-tos for reliable and accurate information on what's happening.

Dan:

Still trying to get over that. The journalism disease. No, it's no disease. I mean, some of my good friends are journalists. So, I appreciate them.

Paul:

Yes, likewise.

Dan:

As you said, I do respect just journalism and what they put in. So I mean, your two major newspaper news sources in the area would be Post-Gazette and then triblive.com, the former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. And now just the regular Tribune-Review set in Greensburg. That's a great place to go for it. But I'd recommend, if you're talking locally, the Allegheny County Health Department. That's got pretty consistent and good updates.

Paul:

They have an entire page, Allegheny County-

Dan:

Yes, they do.

Paul:

... .PA.US devoted to COVID-19.

Dan:

Right. Everybody's got their own page on it now. I mean it's incredible. I think everybody has been a victim of getting all these emails now. And I mean fortunately I have an email from the CEO of Banana Republic to tell me that all their stores are safe, but that's also just ... that's best practice right now. And businesses are doing their due diligence to just show everyone that they're trying to do their best.

Dan:

But for right now, I mean, that gets a little bit away from our question and I'm kind of drifting here, but I would follow the PG and TribLIVE. But a lot of them, they're getting their information from the government sources here. But I would really trust the County Health Department and that's some of your most current information.

Paul:

Absolutely.

Dan:

Make sure you're following their Twitter accounts and everything you can.

Paul:

Logan anything you'd add?

Logan:

I'd also say that The Incline, they're usually a little more lighthearted, but they've been doing a really good job of grouping up various articles from multiple local publications.

Paul:

Yes, aggregating content.

Dan:

Yeah.

Logan:

Exactly. Yeah. Aggregating that and that's getting delivered to inboxes at 6:00 a.m. every day. If you need to be up to date on the latest news in the area, I would also say check out The Incline for that.

Paul:

I'm going to add a few more. So in the last few years, pretty much every television station in Pittsburgh has debuted some flavor of an online presence, sometimes up to and including live streaming of events. So one of the things we've been doing at WordWrite is we've been watching live streams of Governor Wolf, the Pennsylvania governor, and his press conferences, Rich Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County executive, the County Health Department. I believe the new director's name is Dr. Bogen, so that's available.

Paul:

I would also add, and this has not really gotten much attention because the debut occurred during this whole crisis, but Channel 2 KDKA, which is owned by a CBS Network, has debuted essentially I believe a local version of on-air all the time local news. So CBSN is the national network and there's some local connection. I'll be honest with our listeners, I haven't had time to fully understand all of that because we've been so busy with other things. Personally, I look at all of those. I also look at WESA-FM. One of the reasons for that is with everything that's happened in newspapers in recent years, the major foundations in Pittsburgh have poured a fairly substantial amount of money into building the newsroom at WESA and they have all of the same kinds of resources in terms of online delivery of news that we've just talked about.

Paul:

So those for me are all good services. Most of us, I'm of a certain age, I'm 61. I hate to say that in a room with somebody in their twenties and thirties but it's the truth, I can't lie, it's on my driver's license, anyway, even somebody like me can make use of the phone and I am getting a lot of alerts. So I rely on the alerts as well to remind me. Before we shift gears here and talk about some advice for our listeners, even in our own planning for WordWrite, as Dan mentioned, on Friday we were ready, Friday the 13th of March, we were ready to implement a phased work from home process where some people would be in the office. And by the time we got to Sunday of the weekend where mandatory, non-essential businesses are asked to close or it is voluntary but strongly encouraged.

Paul:

So things are just moving so fast now it's worthwhile not to scare yourself, and I think that's, Logan, why it's good that you mentioned The Incline. Really good journalists can have the right touch to put an uplifting spirit into their round up of things. Right? But you don't want to be consumed by the news, but you also want to be informed and up to date. You don't want to be headed out to go to an event or something like that when it's not going to happen. And it was just cancelled. I don't know. Anything you guys would add to that?

Dan:

Well I think if you're talking about cancelled events, just try to look up to see what one is actually on now. Pretty much the assumption should be that it's closed. But-

Logan:

Yeah. And one thing I'd add is that it is a little hectic with all of these things happening so fast. But one of the hopeful benefits of that is this quick action now is really going to be the precursor to slowing it down in the long run.

Paul:

Absolutely. And this is something that, for our listeners, that we've been talking about here at the company in terms of working with our clients and that is that we are at this inflection point where the number of people who might be contagious in our community is at its highest point at the same time that we have the least ability to test.

Paul:

So if we self-isolate for the next two weeks, what we'll be able to do is keep those who might be infected from spreading the disease. National news media is saying that the United States might be 11 days behind Italy, meaning that what's happened there could happen roughly two weeks later here in the United States. God forbid, we don't want that. Other folks I've seen on the national news talk about we want to be like South Korea where there was a lot of testing, the self-isolation and they seem to have, as the medical experts call it, flattened the curve, which is to say slow the growth of the virus so that the number of people who are sick doesn't exceed the capacity of the region's healthcare providers to treat those who are sick.

Dan:

One thing, Paul, I'd like to bring up, open the conversation to you and Logan is what's fascinating about this is similar, like we said, I mean I hate to keep making the comparisons to 9/11 because that was a very much different type of crisis, but that was a tragedy that affected almost everyone in the U.S. at some level. Corona possibly even more. Just in terms of even if you aren't getting the disease, I mean it's probably going to disrupt your life, whether how you're working or somebody that you know. Maybe your children are off of school right now. There's quite a bit going on. And Paul, yourself, I know you've had some, personal events that are affecting you, right?

Paul:

Oh absolutely. So I'll give you a few. Number one, one of our two daughters is getting married, we hope, on May 31st. There's been a lot of conversations with the venue and the providers. The baker and the flowers and everything else. And we'll see how things play out. May 31st might be okay, but let's just say that we're a little concerned.

Paul:

Our other daughter is getting her MBA at the University of Chicago and they have extended spring break, which has pushed their, they're on a quarter system, their third quarter deeper into the year. She's supposed to have an internship this summer. It was going to start June 1st. She won't be done with school on June 1st and we don't even know if she'll have the internship.

Dan:

Yeah, certainly, it's amazing how this is just disrupting lives. I mean it's putting almost everything on pause. It's amazing. Myself, my wife and I, we were planning on taking a vacation to Japan, it was going to be the first week of April and we were looking forward to this trip for an entire year. It was just something we'd planned. It's kind of a bucket list type thing and just a week ago we had to cancel it. Right now as we record here, there are no travel restrictions over there, but there's just no guarantee whenever you see the massive lines that are coming for people that are coming back into the country, at least from Europe. But just something we had to be take care of.

Dan:

And we were even planning on maybe having a backup trip to California. And now we're really seriously kind of rethinking that one. It feels selfish to say, well hey, this thing that was just a wonderful little pleasure trip for us here we're disrupting it. How horrible is that? But we don't know when we're going to be able to take that trip again. We planned for specific dates in our lives. We mapped around that. So it's just another area that it does affect things. But Logan, I know you've even had some ...

Logan:

Yes. Yeah. It's a similar situation. I had a trip planned to Italy. I guess I would've left last week. Yeah. But it is unfortunate that this is such a disruptive virus. But thinking on the bigger picture of things, I mean, it's much better to have these disruptions now and really put these policies in place, especially because not only on an individual level, but on a business level, as we touched on earlier, there's really a lot of things that business owners are going to have to prepare for. And there may be some crisis communications that business owners have to take into account and that's something that we've experienced here. Yeah, Paul?

Paul:

Oh absolutely. Absolutely. And we want to dig into that for the remainder of our time here on the podcast, this episode. And before I do that, I just want to give a quick shout out to your point, Logan, the retail and restaurant sectors are going to be particularly hard hit and in the local economy as well as the American economy, the percentage of workers who are hourly who have, let's just say less robust benefits packages, whatever we can do as a community to keep them in mind and help to keep them employed I think is really important.

Paul:

One of the other sources of information that I didn't mention earlier were members of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the Partnership has articles in the Pittsburgh 100 frequently. Their weekly… they do a weekly sort of what's going on downtown email. And the one that I received just before we came in to record the podcast is all about this subject. So you can't dine in during the time that businesses are closed but you can still do take out. So there's things that we can do as a community to help our friends and our neighbors through. And I think it's something we should do.

Dan:

Yeah, I think before we take a deeper dive into talking about crises and crises management, what you said there kind of touches on an important point and one thing, one of the huge crises or huge problems that are coming out of this is whenever schools are closed there are a lot of students out there who might be on free or reduced lunch and these are kids who might rely on these school lunches to help themselves eat. It might be their biggest meal of the day.

Dan:

But one thing that you've seen is restaurants are coming out and offering free lunches to some of these kids. I believe some districts have, including I believe Pittsburgh Public, they have programs in place to help these kids to make sure that they have food, that they have resources.

Dan:

And that touches on your point there, Paul, about the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership in that…do something. If you're a business owner and you feel like maybe it's a helpless time right now, maybe you have to put pause on a lot of things, you can think of something to do and that's one way I think if you make yourself a goal and you have a mission, you can help yourself get through this, right?

Paul:

Oh, absolutely. We're going to shift gears now folks and talk about crisis. To Dan's point, this is one of the things when we sat down and we looked at this episode of the podcast, there were other segments and other things that we had planned to do perhaps, but we agreed that one of the ways that we could be helpful was to share with people what we know about this.

Paul:

So I'm going to kick off this portion of the episode here and Dan and Logan will jump in. So historically, one of the things that we've done a lot of at WordWrite is crisis communication. And one of the things we've learned is that there are only really four basic kinds of crises.

Paul:

So there are acts of God, there are acts of man, there are acts of God made worse by man, and there are acts of man made worse by God. That's it. You can think about pretty much anything bad that's ever happened in the history of the world. And there's going to be some element of one of those four categories. So certainly-

Dan:

If you asked my wife I think she would say that there are also acts of God made worse by Dan. But we'll leave it to four right now.

Paul:

Well Dan, the last time I looked, you are a human being, so we'll put you in one of the four categories.

Dan:

Got you.

Paul:

Anyway, certainly the viruses, if you want to call it that, an act of God, it's an act of nature. What we don't know yet is whether what's happened, our acts of man, let's call it, that it made it worse. When you go back to China we're not here to judge. We don't really know exactly where the virus spread began. But certainly there's humankind and there's nature mixed together in this crisis.

Paul:

So one of the things that's interesting in doing so much crisis communications at our firm that is both a positive and a cause for pause, is that most crises are predictable. This is not the first time that the world's been through an epidemic, a pandemic, a virus, and perhaps it's the 21st century technology-driven, I don't know if we've become a little bit lazy or we're just lulled into a sense of complacency, but what this epidemic is demonstrating to us that this can still happen in the 21st century.

Logan:

Yes. Even with all the technological advances, and medical advancements, and medical capabilities, something that moves this fast is very hard to control no matter-

Paul:

Absolutely.

Logan:

... how many technological capabilities we have. And it's something that we're probably not going to have a vaccine for, for a little bit. This vaccine isn't going to be coming in the next week or the next month.

Dan:

Testing's an issue too right now.

Logan:

Exactly.

Paul:

18 to 24 months is what people are saying.

Logan:

Right. So we're really going to have to figure out what the best course of action is. And I think that's going to be something that is going to be on the fly. Because, as you've said, we've seen these kinds of crises before, but there's no real way to account for all the variants in it and it's going to be on people and on the media to portray information in as close to real time as possible and as accurately as possible to try to help mitigate that.

Paul:

So one of the things that I think is true about this, 1918 the Spanish flu epidemic was just a terrible worldwide crisis. So that fits into what I just said about most crises are predictable. So we can learn from that. And to your point, Logan, this is fast moving, but we can learn from what's happened in Italy. We can learn from what's happened in China, within the more restrictive immediate window. So that's critically important.

Paul:

One of the other things that's important, and there are going to be people who are going to be picking over this for years, I'm sure, what we tell our clients is if crises are predictable, then you need to plan for them. So theoretically the world, especially the largest economies and countries in the world should have been planning for this sort of a thing. And there had been some, let's just say missteps, fits and starts.

Dan:

Yeah.

Paul:

Now for our listeners, even though this thing is underway, you can look at history and you can look at recent events to do your own planning for the crisis. So we're already in it. So to your point Logan, there's an element of every day is different and you can't predict for sure, but one of the things we do when we work with clients is scenario planning. What's the worst case scenario? What's the best case scenario, what's the likely scenario? And then you start to develop your communications around each one of those outcomes. And that guides you on a day to day basis in terms of what you need to be doing.

Dan:

Right in this situation, and I would just kind of play interviewer here with you Paul, with so many different businesses it's hard to gauge, exactly what are likely outcomes. Businesses right now we might think of they might have to do some layoffs, they might have to temporarily furlough some employees and whether certain bills pass out of our Congress here they may have wages, they may not. It depends on how large a company is. One thing here though, whenever we've had this discussion is we talk about, you start from a place of truth when you're communicating these outcomes. Can you elaborate a little more on that?

Paul:

Sure. So in a crisis like this, obviously if you're standing in front of the forest and the forest is burning behind you, you can't tell people that that smell in the air is a candle. You have to acknowledge even the hard truths.

Paul:

One of the things that we see time and again is that if you're straightforward with people up front and there's tons of university research on this that validates this point, they're going to give you the benefit of the doubt. If I own a restaurant in Pittsburgh that opened two months ago – I'm in a place that's not the same as a restaurant that's been around for 25 years. Right? And I need to say to people, look guys, we just opened. I can't guarantee you that we're going to ride through this unscathed.

Paul:

And then what you need to do is you need to communicate process. And that's where that scenario planning comes in handy. It's like, look, we don't know where this is going to end, but here's what we're going to do today. Here's what we're going to do next week. Here's our thought process and our plan, and there's a lot of university research on this too, that when you can't communicate content, if you can communicate process it calms people's fears and gets people organized around the common goal of moving forward.

Dan:

I guess that speaks to control. It might be the wrong word to say controlling, but trying to manage people's emotions here. I think we have to understand how everyone is feeling because we're feeling the same way on a lot of these things. I mean we can tell a business, a B2B business, okay, hey, this is how you want to talk when you're talking to your clients or something like that. But we have the same feelings whenever we're trying to listen to the government here. Are they going to tell us the process? Are they going to describe that?

Dan:

So can you talk a little bit about how to be a good effective communicator to work with the community and make sure that you're delivering this information not maybe necessarily in a doom and gloom way and just being an effective storyteller essentially?

Paul:

Right. So one of the things that we're big on obviously at our company is the process of storytelling. We have our own process that we help companies uncover what we call their Capital S story. And I do a lot of speaking around this. In a crisis there's no more important time for you to be thinking about your Capital S story and that story is this, it answers these questions. Why would somebody work for you, buy from you, invest in you, partner with you? If you're a nonprofit, why would they donate or volunteer with your organization? And that is the story above all stories for your company, your organization. That's why we call it the Capital S story.

Paul:

And you think about that in times of stress, a crisis like this, which is an enormous stressor. It doesn't matter so much what you say on a daily basis. It matters what people believe you to be as an organization. And I think Dan, that's kind of what you're getting at there.

Paul:

And in a crisis, what we find is whatever audience you're trying to reach, employees, partners, vendors, customers, that's where they go in their minds in terms of assessing whether or not to believe you when you say don't worry about this, or I need your help to do X, Y and Z so that we can pull through this crisis.

Paul:

Right now, all of us are being flooded with information and this story is like cast in concrete. It's bedrock. It's the granite of who your organization is and they're going back to that hard place that they can knock on, that they can sit on, that they can lean on, and that's the truth that they're looking for. To assess whether or not your organization in this time of crisis is an organization that can be believed.

Dan:

Now, not every business, well whenever we think of Corona individually, I mean I'm just thinking of the restaurant that's across the street from us right now but people aren't looking necessarily for Bruegger's Bagels to answer the crisis or come up with a vaccine or explain people how to feel. But how, if you're a business that isn't necessarily adjacent to the current crisis or if you're just you have nothing to do with it, but your business maybe is closed or something like that, how do you kind of manage these crises that you're not necessarily related to but it does affect you?

Paul:

So I think one of the things that we're seeing, and we started the episode today by talking about the news media and some other resources who are trying to be helpful. So you want to be helpful. And there's also an element of business as usual. A lot of the companies that aren't directly affected by the crisis, and of course I'm sure many of our listeners are saying, well everybody's affected by it, and certainly when we all need to be self-isolating, we all are affected by it, but if you're not directly affected by it in the sense that you don't run a restaurant or you're not a retail store or you're not an event space where hundreds of people would be expected to gather, this is a time to be helpful.

Paul:

One of the reasons why we're doing this specific episode of the podcast, we see many, many institutions in the community, there is an element of what they're doing, to your point, Dan, where it is on some level still business as usual. However they have the opportunity because of things being pulled in to reduce the spread of the virus, to have some time, to have some resources to be helpful in whatever way that they can be.

Dan:

Paul, all that stuff is really helpful here. And so I appreciate you especially sharing your expertise here in crisis communications and we encourage anybody who's listening at home to feel free to check out wordwritepr.com. We've got some really good information. There's some good stuff on crisis communications and certainly even one of our VPs here, Jeremy Church, just wrote a really interesting blog about effective crisis communication during outbreaks.

Paul:

Yeah. And Dan, we'll be putting up in the show notes, I wrote one in July of last year, Storytelling in a Crisis: Why You Need Your Capital S Story. And again, we're going to be sharing a lot more of the resources that we can. This is a time when we all need to pull together as a community. And certainly we have clients whom we work for and we have a lot of experience that we've developed over the years, and we want to be able to share that with the community in the spirit of helping everybody recover from this as quickly as possible. And to your point, Dan, if there's anything that we can do as people who believe in good, strong, authentic communications, we want to do that for the community.

Dan:

Absolutely, 100%. And as we wrap up here just the message from us here is hopefully everybody at home can weather this as well as they can. Every business can as well. It sounds cheery and optimistic to say, but we will get through this and we'll survive.

Paul:

Absolutely.

Dan:

Yeah.