How businesses will emerge stronger in the post-coronavirus era

Living by the important corporate strategy slogan: The “lions” that must become “chameleons” and the importance of “Doing Well by Doing Good.”

Usually the first reaction, when we have to confront the unknown, with something that takes us out of our comfort zone and interrupts our sense of normality is primarily fear, the feeling that we are no longer in control, that we could easily fall victim to a situation that we haven’t even fully defined or really understood. With that being said, is it not also the case that the greatest changes prompting prosperity and evolution have resulted from the immense pressure brought about by exceptional circumstances?

The wise popular saying that crises create opportunities seems to be more relevant than ever increasing the need to react quickly and adapt to new realities. If the economic crisis has taught us anything, it is that businesses need to think “out of the box”, invest in innovation and extroversion and to be more prudent in managing their operating costs. The coronavirus is also teaching businesses how social solidarity can become the “key” to “building” strong bonds with customers, partners, the State and employees while focusing on adopting and using new technological tools.

In the maelstrom of the coronavirus, business leaders exercising crisis management is an absolute priority. Capitalism itself is now being called upon to be governed. Globalization must reflect the face of social solidarity primarily through the business community, a community that creates wealth from society, to which it addresses its products and services, which today must display its social profile and act within a new corporate strategy according to the slogan “DOING WELL BY DOING GOOD”.

In a full-length interview with, Dimitris Michopoulos, Managing Director of Weber Shandwick focuses on what businesses need to do in order to properly prepare for the post-coronavirus era, answers questions about what opportunities companies should take advantage of, the role of right crisis management, how new working conditions such as teleworking should be viewed as well as the strategy leaders should follow.

Mr. Michopoulos, do you think that Greek businesses have invested in what we call “crisis management” enabling them to be ready to make the change required under  emergency circumstances, as is now the case with the coronavirus?

The truth is that only a few businesses have invested in proper crisis management. Those who anticipated, assessed the importance of the situation before the spread of the crisis and incorporated crisis management into their operating strategy, are now better prepared. These companies operate on the basis of a specific framework related to every audience, along with employees, consumers, suppliers, government agencies, authorities, financial institutions and society itself. They follow a series of best practices that they studied and predicted weeks before the quarantine and, of course, changing attitudes after intense consultation with specialists and experts, based on the latest data emerging from around the world.

What do you believe the “next day” will look like and what kind of “traumas” do you believe  the lockdown will leave behind it that will have a knock on effect on both businesses and employees?

We are experiencing unprecedented events on a global level. We are entering uncharted waters once again and are unable to predict how things will ultimately evolve. And that makes sense. The unknown can’t be safely predicted. It requires vigilance and constant study. Undoubtedly, however, the lockdown will have an impact on both businesses and employees. Businesses will not emerge unscathed from this crisis. They will suffer the consequences of the downturn in their market and a decline in their revenues. Inevitably, this will have an impact on all stakeholders. Employees, shareholders, management, consumers, partners.

Initially, leadership will have to show resilience and maintain a sense of strength and empathy on a mental, psychological and physical level over the next few years which are inevitably going to be tough. Leadership will also be called upon to demonstrate extremely fast adaptability to new situations.

What characteristics does a leader need to adopt in such a crisis?

Today, the all-powerful and proud leader or “the lion” needs to evolve into a “chameleon”, with the ability to adapt immediately to fast changing developments in what is a new reality whilst forgetting self-promotion, exaggerations and communication tricks. This is the only way that a leader will be able to act effectively and uphold the wellbeing of employees within the organization. Today, a good leader must have the strength to inspire morale in their team in order to curb feelings of individual loneliness and uncertainty. Shaking someone’s hand and meeting in the same place will not be what it was before. The convenience of physically meeting third parties will be replaced by the flexibility of their absence. Until recently, we asked if there was a reason to communicate online instead of face-to-face. From now on we will ask why there should be any personal contact at all. And we will need to remind and convince ourselves that this need really exists. That personal contact is necessary and in some cases irreplaceable.

In the second stage, it is essential that this same sense of adaptability be transferred to how the organization operates on a daily basis. Tech-based working methods, new lean management models and a new type of transparent corporate governance will emerge much faster than we anticipated before the pandemic. Augmented reality, innovative technologies and the changes they are already bringing with them along with the emergence of new possibilities are features that are here to stay.

What is the message that you have received from Weber Shandwick China, as they went through the crisis first before it spread all over the globe?  

China was definitely the trigger. Since then Weber Shandwick’s global network has made it its mission to keep fully up-to-date with the situation before proposing best practices on a corporate and personal level.

When it comes to the present situation in Europe – which is now the epicenter of the health crisis – businesses must continue to focus primarily on the well-being of their employees and contribute to the public’s safety. They need to remain faithful to their values and act responsibly beyond the boundaries of their business. Contribute to the Authorities in any way possible. On the other hand, they are being called upon to assess crisis management teams, anticipate different scenarios to ensure vital business operations, and communicate in a coordinated manner, with one united voice.

In addition, it has become imperative, since the beginning of the pandemic, for companies to review their communication strategy based on new needs. Approaches need to change. Businesses need to find more appropriate and meaningful ways to communicate, let’s say via email, with their customers and consumers in general, to keep them updated about any changes in their policies or services.

Furthermore, companies should concentrate on communicating their people-centric attitude towards their employees regarding how they are going about finding and implementing new appropriate ways of organizing work. They also need to take care of their customers e.g. by making offers, etc. With that being said, standard promotional emails won’t be sufficient as they give the public the impression that business is continuing as usual. This should definitely be avoided as it has the potential to provoke public outrage.

Companies should also show flexibility when it comes to their media spend. All brands and organizations must reassess their paid media placements, removing any placements that may pose a reputational risk. While it’s almost impossible right now to avoid placement next to COVID-19 content, companies need to be stricter with their creative messages and images. They may need to change the messages in their ad campaigns as well.

You argue that companies must remain true to their values and act responsibly even beyond their corporate scope. However, we have seen many businesses enforce redundancies on the grounds that they cannot meet their financial obligations. How do you view this situation?  Why is greater unity needed now more than ever?

Let’s distinguish between the three concepts: responsibility and accountability beyond corporate boundaries, belief in values and the importance of protecting employees. Let’s start with employees. The least that serious companies, those with market prestige and financial strength, can do is to  safeguard jobs in times of crisis. This is what we mean essentially when we talk about Corporate Responsibility, and employees are now its main pillar. A company’s human resources represent a company’s most valuable and reliable resource, one that requires investment if the company is to move forwards.  

As far as company values are concerned, especially during and immediately after the crisis, these will represent the main guide for its future. The next phase of each organization’s activity reflects its values. It is its mirror.

Finally, responsibility and accountability represent the basic condition that will be the criterion for whether an organization will exist in the near future. Responsibility at corporate level and even at brand level is a cornerstone if an organization is to continue to exist and be regarded as a viable option by partners, suppliers, employees and of course consumers. This also applies to the responsibility and accountability that must be shown towards individuals, teams, partners, the real needs of society, the medical and scientific community, instructions provided by government, security forces and any given country’s authorities.

Is technology able to maintain, to some extent, normality in how businesses operate?

Obviously yes, but the transition is no task. The current modus operandum used in many businesses existed even before the crisis. It has simply now come to the forefront and is to some extent, more evident. Teleworking, distance learning and the daily use of electronic platforms have all suddenly came to the fore. While they may have affected the emotional security that our office space inspires in a business, these changes are here to stay. The best thing to do, therefore, is to adapt immediately, without rigidities and with a sophisticated legal framework where necessary. No one should be left behind.

Issues related to artificial intelligence, robotics, open data, but also pharmaceutical innovation, personalized treatment/therapy did not arise from the crisis. The coronavirus crisis has only accelerated the future. And in the dramatic moments that the whole world is experiencing and fully respecting the sadness that exists, we must see this as an opportunity. And adapt to it.

Since you have a global communications network that provides next-generation solutions to brands, businesses and organizations in major markets around the world, what feedback are you currently receiving from the business community? What is their biggest fear?

In the short term, their focus is on dealing with the pandemic. Which we hope will come soon, precisely because of modern technology, artificial intelligence and access to open data. That’s why we need to fully support medical, hospital care and pharmaceutical research and other initiatives.

The medium-term fear is related to the new undefined economic environment in which organizations will be called upon to operate in. They need to take advantage of as many budgetary and fiscal tools and measures as possible. Governments as well as more centrally the EU have already activated such tools and have implemented emergency measures to deal with the consequences of the spread of the virus. And more drastic ones will follow.

But the main fear is related to what I would describe as the “puzzle” we are trying to solve in the medium to long term. Some business leaders have begun to outline this framework. They have adapted a little faster. Those who haven’t adopted such practices with foresight will sooner or later – be called upon to choose partners or collaborators with the ability, knowledge and experience to do so.

I actually believe that the world of tomorrow has some extremely positive features. Expertise and trust in experts will eventually prevail. Greece’s Person of the Year for 2020, the epidemiologist Sotiris Tsiodras has paved the way for other experts in their field over the next decade. At the same time, the effective management of the current crisis -and those to come- will have to be executed by experienced executives who will respond to the ever mounting needs of the times, keeping in mind to always maintain a people-centric mindset. In addition, trust in knowledge will curb fake news. Of course, fake news will not go away. But those who initiate fake news, especially those who do not operate for a greater social good, will be sidelined, without a doubt to a greater extent than today. Governments and leadership that act promptly, responsibly and proactively based on expert advice will gain ground. I just hope and pray that this transition will materialize harmoniously and without any huge loss of life. And that’s not only based on obvious humanitarian reasons but because in the societies that are most affected, initially the “emotive”, the “why” dominate. This will prove to be the main obstacle that we will come up against as we move into the post-crisis era.

Published on FORTUNE