Old lessons for a new pandemic
The author, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, served as managing director, Asia-Pacific for Burson-Marsteller. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.
I was en route from Southeast Asia — where I am based with the Milken Institute — onward to Mississippi and then New York City for memorial services for Harold Burson, the late founder of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, and could not but wonder: What might Harold say about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic?
Over 30 years, Harold had become a longtime friend and mentor and been rightly described by PRWeek magazine as “the [20th] century’s most influential PR figure.” When he passed away from complications from a fall, Harold at 98 years old had seen over the course of his lifetime the start and end of both world wars and a polio epidemic, and the arrival of then-modern technologies that are modern no more.
What wisdom might Harold have shared today with Asia’s leaders as well as elsewhere in our globalized world in this unfolding age of the novel coronavirus? Through the decades, Harold and the firm he led would be involved in many of the crises, from pandemics to corporate disasters and blunders, as well as triumphs that would help define the practice of crisis management and crisis preparedness. Other landmark clients included the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
It was under Harold that my own international career would begin in the 1990s, taking me to Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong and back to New York after Sept. 11, 2001.
In the United States, in the early 2000s, I became part of the U.S. team at Burson-Marsteller that worked with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office as it worked to communicate Hong Kong’s efforts to battle the deadly spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS — a disease linked to the coronavirus, SARS-CoV.
Lessons learned during those difficult times have now aided many nations in their efforts to face the ongoing pandemic of SARS-CoV2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. That time, nearly two decades ago, also came back to me this February as I reflected on what I might say or write in remembrance of Harold Burson. As Covid-19 continues to take its toll on all too many of our elders, let us not forget the wisdom of people like Harold.
Five points I had learned of from Harold’s example and that I shared at Harold’s memorial service at Lincoln Center in New York still very much apply today. Harold might have passed away, but his timeless wisdom holds true today for all countries, businesses and individuals as we battle the direct and indirect consequences of the ongoing pandemic.
With much of the world’s population in lockdown, tensions driven by close proximity for days on end are likely to raise tempers and the chances for conflict. Certainly be mindful, but let us also remember the power of kindness.
He might have been a pioneering CEO at a firm with thousands of employees, but Harold made time to offer up a kind word, a hand-written note of thanks or 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.
Corporate titans and presidents — most famously, that other great communicator, former U.S. President 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 General Douglas MacArthur. And that is something also that leaders today, including in China where the coronavirus first emerged, might also take to heart. Past success in battling this latest coronavirus is certainly no predictor of future outcomes, and leaders will want to not declare “mission accomplished” too soon.
In building a global business, Harold was no stranger to success or failure. He knew though that accountability is not a punishment or simply about water under the bridge. Through accountability comes change and progress.
As 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, attributed to American humorist Will Rogers, could well have been attributed to Harold. “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.
That 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.”
In one minute or five, reputation — like trust — can be lost quickly. And trust, Harold taught me, like a good reputation, must be earned over time. And 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 reports as well as how it handled the SARS outbreak.
Tell the truth
So, how to earn trust in the age of coronavirus? The solution, Harold might have said, could well be quite simple. That is, tell the truth. And more than that, allow others to tell and report the truth.
Those words of wisdom ring particularly true at a time when China has thrown out American reporters from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
This past Feb. 15, Harold would have celebrated his 99th birthday. Imagine. Harold was already 64 when I first started working with him way back in 1986, underscoring how each of us too can impact a life at any age.
And as I think about it more, Harold’s story is not fully over. He will live on to 100 and beyond through his ideas, his values and through all of us — whether family, friend, client or colleague — if each of us embrace his decency, his humanity, his wisdom.
Be kind. Be humble. Be accountable. Earn trust. Tell the truth.
Those might sound like old-fashion words of wisdom from a century past. The first few months of 2020 and an unfolding pandemic, however, tell us they are 20th-century lessons that must not be forgotten in the 21st.