As Indonesia continues its battle against the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, I cannot but help wonder "what might Harold say". That would be the late Harold Burson — a pioneer in crisis management who was recognized by the industry publication PRWeek in 1999 as the most influential PR person of the 20th century.
What lessons might Harold share that would hold true across ASEAN including in nations as diverse as small, wealthy Singapore and Brunei, and the giant, archipelago nations of Indonesia and the Philippines?
Harold, a longtime mentor of mine, passed away this January in Memphis after complications from a fall at the age of 98. And, in February, I traveled from Southeast Asia, where I am based with the Milken Institute Asia Center in Singapore, to New York, to speak at a memorial service for Harold.
His firm Burson-Marsteller – now Burson Cohn & Wolfe – had been engaged by clients ranging from the United States Postal Service, when letters laced with anthrax began appearing in the US mail after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, to the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, before, during and after the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), in 2002.
I was part of the US team that worked with the Hong Kong government in its communications surrounding SARS — a disease linked to the SARS coronavirus, SARS-CoV. Hong Kong would go on to bear the disproportionate brunt of the deaths and economic impact outside of mainland China, where SARS first appeared in November 2002 according to the World Health Organization.
Lessons learned during those difficult times have now aided others in their efforts to face the ongoing pandemic of SARS-CoV2, which causes COVID-19.
At the Lincoln Center memorial service, I shared five simple, enduring principles I learned from Harold. All of ASEAN's leaders might also take Harold's wisdom to heart, and come together to deliver and communicate a vigorous, integrated health and economic response to COVID-19 at both the national and regional levels.
With a growing percentage of the world's population in lockdown, tensions driven by close proximity for weeks on end are likely to raise tempers and the chances for conflict. Certainly, be mindful, but let us also remember the power of kindness and compassion.
At a firm with thousands of employees, Harold always made time to offer a kind word, write a note of thanks or send an encouraging email.
"Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible," the Dalai Lama is famously said to have shared. And Harold would no doubt have agreed, even in these most difficult of times, particularly for the poorest and all those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
Corporate titans and presidents — including that other great communicator, Ronald Reagan — took to Harold. Every leader develops his or her style. And for Harold, leadership also meant a steely humbleness.
Think Yoda, more than Gen. Douglas MacArthur. That is something leaders today might also embrace in communications. Past success, including against COVID-19, is certainly no predictor of future outcomes, and leaders will want to not declare "mission accomplished" too soon. And as president Reagan might well have famously reiterated at one of his monthly meetings with Harold, "Trust but verify."
In building a global business, Harold was no stranger to setbacks or the need to make corrections. He knew though that accountability is not a punishment or simply about water under the bridge. Through accountability comes change and progress.
As Los Angeles-based Fay Feeney, CEO of advisory firm Risk for Good, tells me, "Accountability is an assurance that an individual or an organization will be evaluated in their performance or behavior related to something for which they are responsible." And they will be stronger for it.
A basic tenet of public relations is echoed in legendary investor Warren Buffett's oft-quoted statement, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'd do things differently."
Reputation, like trust, can be lost quickly. And trust, Harold taught me, like a good reputation must be earned over time. That is true for nations too. Ongoing doubts over the accuracy of COVID-19 case data from China is due in no small part to longstanding doubts about the accuracy over Chinese economic data and how that nation likely misled the Word Health Organization and others during the SARS outbreak.
Tell the truth.
So, how to earn trust in the age of coronavirus? The solution, Harold might have said, is as simple as “tell the truth”. More than that, ensure a system that encourages and allows others to tell and report the truth.
These might sound like old-fashioned words of wisdom from a century past but they hold true today for all countries, businesses and individuals in Indonesia and elsewhere as we battle the direct and indirect consequences of the ongoing pandemic.
This past Feb. 15, Harold would have celebrated his 99th birthday. He had hoped to make it to 100 years of age — "I'm working on it!" he had said to me —but his story is not fully over. He will live on to 100 and beyond through his ideas, his values and through all of us in ASEAN — if each of us embrace his decency, his humanity, his wisdom.
Be kind. Be humble. Be accountable. Earn trust. Tell the truth.
The first few months of 2020 and the spread of COVID-19 underscore that these are 20th century lessons that must not be forgotten in the 21st.
Former United States ambassador to the Asian Development Bank; managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.