FOFO Can Kill, and 4 More Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic

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There are many lessons that will come out of the coronavirus pandemic. Politicians, CEOs, and communications professionals will all have to learn them. Some will learn the hard way, others might not. Here are a few we hope they’ll learn:

1. Fear of Finding Out can kill us.

Mark Weiner described PR people as plagued by “Fear of Finding Out.” He illustrates this with an actual quote from a PR agency president: “I don’t measure because I’d rather forgo being proven a success in exchange for never being a proven a failure.” In other words, people don’t measure because they don’t want to know how bad things might be. Sound familiar?

One thing that the countries that have seen the fastest flattening of their Covid-19 case curves have in common is widespread testing—allowing them to understand exactly how bad their problems are. Sadly, the countries that have lagged the furthest behind in testing are the ones with the biggest difficulty controlling the disease. I won’t blame FOFO for all the U.S. failures in testing, but there’s no doubt that the current administration didn’t make finding out the size and extent of the problem a high priority when news of the virus first appeared in December.

2. Focus on the right numbers, for the right reasons.

In our last issue we gave our Measurement Menace of the Month Award to a certain political figure. He likes numbers—but only the ones that make him look good. We’ve seen a lot of that lately. Boeing focusing on profits over safety. Wells Fargo focusing on sales over ethics. Deutsche Bank pushing growth over profitability and the law. And President Trump, back in February, focusing on the small number of cases, rather than on the spread, or the death rate, or the size of the problem vs. the supply of PPE and other equipment needed to deal with it.

Numbers and data are very valuable things, but only when they are used in the context of a bigger picture. Similarly, brands that are running ads or email campaigns that may have garnered “results” (as in large numbers of clicks or eyeballs) in the past are flopping today. Because getting eyeballs is not what’s needed. What’s needed are trust and strong relationships between brands and their stakeholders.

So brands that don’t stop to think carefully about their numbers are likely to flop. Brands like Sandals, that sent out messages about vacation resorts that no one can get to. And Everlane, that posted about its first-ever sale (just as unemployment numbers reached their highest point in history) because “this was a time of many firsts.”

On the other hand, posts like those from Georgia Pacific’s social media team work. The ones about how hard they are working to put toilet paper back on shelves make you smile. And, presumably, you will reach for their Angel Soft® brand once we all go shopping again.

3. People who trust data and science tend to live longer.

New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 has shown that data and science work better than conspiracy theories and science deniers.

The curves of countries like Brazil and Poland are today significantly steeper than that of New Zealand. But, more importantly, those with flattening curves had responses that were directed by scientists and driven by data. In New Zealand, the Prime Minister immediately closed the borders, and shortly thereafter ordered a full and total 4-week shut down (not two weeks, like most of the U.S.). Surfers were ordered out of the ocean. The Health Minister was chastised by the Prime Minister for taking his family to the beach. To date, only one person has died from Covid-19 in New Zealand.

Likewise, brands that use research, data, and science to make decisions tend to perform better. Southwest Airlines, which has been investing in communications measurement for decades, is also the only airline that stock analysts have upgraded from In Line to Outperform (Southwest is the blue line, below):

4. Unproven drugs are the AVE of this crisis.

Okay, that might be an insult to hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that President Trump has been touting as a possible cure for Covid-19. It has been shown to be effective on certain rheumatic diseases. But still, Trump’s relentless promotion of it may have something to do with the fact that one of his donors stands to profit from its sale. Also, he gets his medical advice from Fox News.

But, like Ad Value Equivalency, there is no data science behind the claim. At least AVEs won’t kill you.

5. Business as we know it will be over. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Covid-19 pandemic will destroy many businesses and norms. But many were anachronistic and far beyond their sell-by dates anyway.

For example, it was widely believed by many companies that, in order to be productive, employees had to drive 2-3 hours a day back and forth to work in gas-guzzling cars. As it turns out, millions of people can be just as productive working from home. By doing so they save money on gas, cars, and roads, plus the environment is cleaner. Companies may end up saving money on office space and be able to pay workers more as a result.

Here’s another one. Thousands of companies are accustomed to spending millions of dollars organizing, attending, and exhibiting at huge trade shows. Now that those events are cancelled or postponed, companies have to find other ways to reach potential customers. I’m guessing that some of them are realizing they get just as much business and make just as many contacts by hosting video conferences. Or smaller, more focused online meetings in which customers’ specific questions can be addressed. Will we ever fill up Javits Convention Center or McCormick Place again? Sure, but it may be with homeless people rather than trade show booths. And that might be the solution to a different problem. ∞

Thanks for the photo to Nick Bolton on Unsplash.
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