No, we are not at war with COVID-19

Opinion: Invoking the blitz spirit works better for politicians than for businesses, says the CEO of MullenLowe Group UK.

by Jeremy Hine
Last Updated: 21 Apr 2020
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Coronavirus

As the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK has worsened, we’ve seen more and more public figures and business leaders using wartime metaphors, images and language to convey the importance and urgency of the situation. This is a noticeable change from the tone at the beginning of the crisis, which was more upbeat. 

Before he was hospitalised, Boris Johnson in particular dialled up his rhetoric, casting coronavirus as the enemy and calling on the ‘blitz spirit’ to get us through this difficult time. If used wisely and with the right intent, this approach could prove to be a positive motivational tool.  

But is it an approach appropriate for those with a different objective, i.e. corporate leaders, businesses or even their brands? In its update to the market, Marks & Spencer reminded customers that it “has served customers without cease through two world wars [and] terrorist bombings and we are determined to support customers now."

While it is understandable to reference World War II, which was arguably the last time that public life changed so significantly, there is a very fine line for all businesses to walk when it comes to using martial language. 

Harking back to the blitz is a powerful way of bringing people together; reminding the older, and informing the younger generations, of a time when we had to unite for the greater good. However, wars and global pandemics are not the same thing. 

While we do have an enemy of sorts in COVID-19, we as a society and global community can only protect ourselves - not, ultimately, fight it. 

It is here, and until there is a vaccine, which the world so desperately needs, it can’t be eliminated. So by setting the virus up as ‘the enemy’, politicians and businesses could end up casting themselves as the losers in this battle.

What’s more, the language of war can be divisive in politically troubled times. The impact of the virus is unpredictable and indiscriminate, both in terms of health outcomes and the economic impact. Those, both businesses and individuals, who were struggling before coronavirus hit are likely to be more adversely affected than those who already had a financial cushion. 

The message may be that ‘we’re all in this together’, but sadly that often isn’t the case in socio-economic terms. 

Instead what matters most in these times rather than language is actions. On a governmental level, the action to support employees, businesses and the self-employed with the promise that the government will pay 80 per cent of wages - or the previous year’s profits in the case of the self-employed - has shown encouraging and empathetic leadership.

Equally for businesses, a focus on the public good alongside a focus on protecting their employees is the best approach. The early move by LVMH to switch to producing hand sanitiser, that of Zara to start making scrubs and Dyson moving to develop ventilators are the laudable examples of companies shifting their business model to focus on the health crisis. 

But even if your business isn’t one that can easily pivot to creating desperately-needed healthcare supplies, there is a responsibility for leaders and key decision makers to protect the wellbeing and financial security of employees. In a special edition of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, 52 per cent of respondents said brands must do this even if it meant them suffering big financial losses. 

Public reaction to Wetherspoons and Sports Direct’s less-than-charitable behaviour is an early indication of what doesn’t work.  

Instead of perfecting their Churchillian oratory, business leaders should park the rhetoric and focus on finding ways to protect the public, their employees, their business and their clients. Whilst there are certainly positives to be seen in invoking the blitz spirit to rally the nation together, there is a delicate balance between creating a narrative that is inclusive and makes everyone feel ‘we are in this together’, versus making people feel like a message or policy doesn’t apply to them. 

Ultimately it is both government and businesses responsibility to share factual, transparent and up-to-date messages with the public. We may not be at war, but this is how we can win.

Jeremy Hine is CEO of MullenLowe Group UK

Image credit: MullenLowe

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