Q&A with CPD: Fred Cook

In this series, CPD interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners.

What do you consider to be the most difficult challenges for organizational crisis management during this COVID-19 pandemic?

Communicating during the COVID-19 pandemic is especially challenging because it is so new. Until now, no one has been required to manage a global epidemic and economic shutdown on this scale. Because there are no rules to follow, communicators are improvising and making decisions based on the information they have at the moment. Their job is complicated by a lack of governmental leadership and the myriad of state and local laws they have to abide by.

The other big communication challenge is finding the right balance between caring for your people and promoting your business. During the quarantine, some brands are experiencing sales increases, while others are seeing huge declines. And their employees are threatened by illness and unemployment. How this information is shared is critical to both the workforce and the customer, both of whom may be under stress.

Have you seen recent examples of exceptional crisis management that relies on strong international cooperation, and what can other organizations and leaders learn from them?

Although navigating the coronavirus is not typical crisis management, it does provide an unprecedented look at how companies react to unexpected situations on a scale they never imagined. Two companies that have done this extremely well are Amazon and Walmart.

During this crisis, they have gone from being big retail brands that consumers love to hate, to becoming essential services that people can’t live without. Both have provided a seemingly endless supply of the products we need to survive, and they have delivered them to our homes and kept stores open and safe. The logistics involved in this monumental effort require global coordination on a scale that is only seen during wartime.

Along with health care workers, both companies' employees (3 million total) have been on the front lines of the pandemic, literally risking their lives every day to save ours. Walmart was there from the beginning, offering to convert its parking lots to COVID-19 testing centers. They have also honored their employees with a thoughtful ad campaign showcasing their dedication. Amazon has announced they are hiring 100,000 more staffers at a higher-than-normal wage to help offset the rapid increase in unemployment.

Certainly, there are some issues that both companies could handle better. But in a time of crisis, Walmart and Amazon have been role models that other organizations can learn from.

As chairman of Golin, you’ve managed world-class brands and clients. What do you see on the horizon for brand communication?

Right now, everyone is asking that same question. How will this crisis impact the way consumers think, act and shop? At Golin, we call it Business as Unusual. We predict it will be at least a year before brand marketing and communication return to previous levels, and for some categories it may take longer.

If and when these marketing disciplines recover, the messages they communicate will be different than before the COVID-19 virus, and those differences will vary from one industry to another.

Every brand will be trying to tap into the cultural mindset of their consumer. Are they stressed out? Are they unemployed? Are they worried about losing their homes? Do they want to travel? Do they want to stay home? Are they cooking more? Do they want to get out of the house? Are they more focused on their health? Do they want to spend more time with their families? Will they continue to work from home? Every marketer wants to know the answers to these questions.

A huge global crisis, like the one we are experiencing, can make brand marketing seem irrelevant and even inappropriate. For a marketing message to resonate, its tone will need to be more thoughtful and its content more purposeful. There will fewer sales pitches and more storytelling. Consumers are ready for this crisis to end, but they will never be the same after it does.

Measuring success is another focus area that has evolved rapidly across industries. What are some new ways that are emerging for PR and communication professionals to measure the success of their work? Today, there are many new tools to analyze and measure the success of a communication campaign. We examine most of them in our recent report called “PR: Tech” from the USC Center for Public Relations.

Artificial intelligence can instantaneously synthesize enormous amounts of data to analyze the sentiment of a target audience in response to a marketing message, allowing brands to adjust campaigns in real time. AI also helps marketers deliver more tightly focused messages that reach the right consumer at the right time with the right message with great efficiency. This is how Facebook knows to place an ad for socks on your page moments after you’ve bought a new pair of shoes.

These sophisticated tools will continue to advance the science of targeting and measurement, but they may never unlock the secrets of consumer behavior. Did a PR program change public opinion on an issue? Did an ad campaign convince consumers to buy a product? Did an influencer’s post help build a brand’s image? These are questions data can’t always answer. While it’s becoming more of a science, communications is still an art.

In the title of your memoir, you describe yourself as an “Unlikely CEO” and your advice as “unorthodox.” What should students and those in the early stages of their careers glean from your experience? And what advice do you have for students of public diplomacy seeking a strong foundation in public relations and crisis management?

I teach a leadership course at Annenberg based on my book, Improvise, which contains many insights for students starting out in their careers. The goal is to build individual curiosity, creativity, confidence and courage by experiencing new things outside of one’s comfort zone.

The section that is most critical to public diplomacy is titled, “Hit the Road,” which focuses on the need to become a global citizen. As we have seen with the coronavirus, we are part of a global community, and we are impacted by the policies and decisions of other countries. However, many students, especially Americans, are not very familiar with foreign cultures and customs. But this is an easy fix, even in a time when no one is traveling. For today’s students, the world is literally at your fingertips. You can tune into Japanese TV, learn Spanish online, and sample Korean food without leaving your living room!

We all live and work in a global community, and the better we understand our neighbors, the more successful we will be.

About Q&A with CPD

In this series, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners. For more information about the Q&A with CPD series, click here.

To read the other interviews in this series, please click here.


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