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How to Thrive — Not Just Survive — in the Age of the Coronavirus: Focus On 5 Core Principles

Lessons from communications pioneer Harold Burson

Remembering Harold Burson, The Chapel at Ole Miss. Photo: Curtis S. Chin
Remembering Harold Burson, The Chapel at Ole Miss. Photo: Curtis S. Chin

Amidst pandemic, recession and protests, a simple question remains. How to thrive, not just survive, in these troubled and challenging times?

From “wear a face mask” or “face cover” to “practice social distancing” and “wash your hands often,” guidance from organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) and the World Health Organization (WHO) on how to protect yourself and others is readily available.

A range of information and resources, including from the non-profit, non-partisan Milken Institute with which I am affiliated, also underscore the importance of paying attention to mental health and well-being. 

The uncertainty, fear, and changes in daily life caused by COVID-19 have certainly drastically affected people’s mental health and exacerbated the systemic challenges of treatment and resource availability. That was a key point in a recent Milken Institute webinar that convened experts and advocates to address the rapid increase in demand for mental health services and barriers to affordable care.

A focus on the core (principles)

Each of us also can take steps to assess or reassess our own approach to the stress and craziness of our upended daily lives. Part of that might include thinking about the core principles by which we live our lives and that guide our daily interactions.

This all came to mind earlier this year when I was en route from Southeast Asia to the chapel at Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi and then on to Lincoln Center in New York City for memorial services for Harold Burson, the late founder of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller (now known as Burson Cohn & Wolfe, or BCW).  

Harold had over 30 years become a friend and mentor and had passed away this January at 98-years-old from complications from a fall before the coronavirus swept our world.  He has been rightly described by PRWeek magazine as “the [20th] century’s most influential PR figure.” 

What wisdom might Harold have shared today?

In the United States in the early 2000s while working with Harold, I became part of the U.S. team at Burson-Marsteller assisting the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office as it communicated Hong Kong’s efforts to battle the deadly spread of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — a disease linked to the SARS coronavirus, SARS-CoV.

Lessons learned during those difficult times have now aided efforts to face the ongoing pandemic of SARS-CoV2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, which causes COVID-19.

And today, five core principles I learned from Harold’s example still very much apply. Harold has passed away, but his timeless wisdom holds true as we battle the direct and indirect health and economic consequences of the ongoing pandemic.

1. Be kind.

With much of the world’s population having been in or still in some form of lockdown or staying at and working from home, tensions driven by travel restrictions and 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,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama is famously said to have shared. And Harold would no doubt have agreed, even in these most difficult of times. 

2. Be humble. 

Corporate titans and presidents — most famously, 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 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 national, state and city leaders will want to not declare “mission accomplished” too soon.  

3. Be accountable.

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.

4. Earn trust.

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. 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 and over how it misled nations over the earlier SARS outbreak.

5. 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.  

That advice rings 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, and concerns about restrictions on free speech grow in Hong Kong, the Philippines and elsewhere.

This past February 15th, 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 — including family members, friends, clients, colleagues and even those who did not have the chance to meet Harold — if each of us embraces his decency, his humanity and his wisdom. 

Be kind. Be humble. Be accountable. Earn trust. Tell the truth. 

These principles which Harold lived by might sound like old-fashioned words of wisdom from a century past. The year-to-date 2020 and an ongoing pandemic tell us, however, that they are 20th century lessons that must not be forgotten if we are to thrive, not just survive, in the 21st. 

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is the inaugural Asia Fellow at the Milken Institute and managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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