Amidst the continued battle against the spread of the novel coronavirus, I cannot but help wonder what might Harold Burson have to say to Thailand’s leaders in government, business and civil society.
What lessons might Burson—a pioneer in crisis management and public relations who was recognized by the industry publication PRWeek in 1999 as the most influential P.R. person of the 20th century—have shared with us today in the battle against COVID-19? Sadly, Burson passed away this January in the U.S. state of Tennessee at the age of 98 after complications from a fall.
And so, in February, I traveled from Southeast Asia where I am based with the Milken Institute onward to Tokyo and New York to speak at a memorial service for Burson, who had been a longtime mentor of mine.
His firm Burson-Marsteller—now Burson Cohn & Wolfe—had been engaged by clients ranging from the United States Postal Service when letters laced with anthrax began appearing in the U.S. mail after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office before, during and after the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, in 2002.
I was part of the U.S. team that worked with the Hong Kong government in its communications surrounding SARS—a disease linked to the SARS coronavirus, SARS-CoV. Hong Kong would go on to bear the disproportionate brunt of the deaths and economic impact outside of Mainland China, where SARS first appeared in November 2002 according to the World Health Organization.
Lessons learned during those difficult times have now aided others in their efforts to face the ongoing pandemic of SARS-CoV2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.
At the Lincoln Center memorial service, I drew on those and other experiences to share five simple, enduring principles I learned from Burson’s example. Thailand’s diversity of government, business and civil society representatives might also take Burson’s wisdom to heart, and come together to deliver a vigorous, integrated health and economic response to COVID-19.
With a growing percentage of the world’s population in some form of lockdown, tensions driven by close proximity for weeks on end are likely to raise tempers and the chances for conflict. Certainly, be mindful, but let us also remember the power of kindness and compassion.
At a firm with thousands of employees, Burson always made time to offer a kind word, write a note of thanks or send an encouraging email.
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible,” the Dalai Lama is famously said to have shared. And Burson would no doubt have agreed, even in these most difficult of times, particularly for the poorest and all those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
Corporate titans and presidents—including that other great communicator, Ronald Reagan—took to Burson. Every leader develops his or her style. And for Burson, leadership also meant a steely humbleness.
Think Yoda, more than General Douglas MacArthur. That is something Thailand’s leaders today might also embrace in communications. Past success, including against COVID-19, is certainly no predictor of future outcomes, and leaders will want to not declare “mission accomplished” too soon. And as President Reagan might well have famously reiterated at one of his regular meetings with Burson, “Trust but verify.”
In building a global business, Burson was no stranger to set-backs or the need to make corrections. He knew though that accountability is not a punishment or simply about water under the bridge. Through accountability comes change and progress.
As Los Angeles-based 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 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.”
Reputation like trust, can be lost quickly. And trust, Burson 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 of Chinese economic data and how that nation misled the World Health Organization and others during the SARS outbreak.
Tell the truth.
So, how will leaders in Thailand earn trust in the age of coronavirus? The solution, Burson might have said, is as simple as “tell the truth.” More than that, ensure a system that encourages and allows others to tell and report the truth.
These might sound like old-fashioned words of wisdom from a century past but they hold true today for all of Thailand’s government, business and civil society leaders as we battle the direct and indirect consequences of the ongoing pandemic.
This past, February 15th, Burson would have celebrated his 99th birthday. He had hoped to make it to 100 years of age—”I’m working on it!” he had said to me—but it was not to be. His story though is not fully over. He will live on to 100 and beyond through his ideas, his values and through all in Thailand—if each of us embrace his decency, his humanity, his wisdom.
Be kind. Be humble. Be accountable. Earn trust. Tell the truth.
The first few months of 2020 and the spread of COVID-19 underscore that these are 20th century lessons that must not be forgotten in Thailand and elsewhere in the 21st.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.