Let's face it, folks. It's going to be all coronavirus all the time this week. This is going to be a rolling post, about what I'm hearing, what I'm thinking and what I'm feeling. Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments section, and check back here regularly for updates. —DM
Friday (Happy Hour Video), 12:02 p.m.
Friday, 11:21 a.m.
From a Massachusetts correspondent: "The word I have been hearing at the State Police barracks is they are trying to keep arrests to a minimum. Until all the cells and holding areas are sanitized they have nowhere to house these jokers."
Friday, 10:25 a.m.
From my pastor friend, Suzanne Ecklund:
I'll be damned if there's not an advantage to having an anxiety disorder. See, I live at this level of anxiety all day every day. Nothing's changed for me. For me, this is any given Tuesday. But for lots of other people, this is a shock to the system. For these rookie nervous people, they don't know how to be in the world like this. But for me, it's like everybody's coming home to Mama. And now I get stand at the door with a drink in hand saying, "Welcome. We've been waiting for you. Do come in."
Friday, 8:00 a.m.
Watching first hour of a virtual event by the Economic Club of Washington—a bunch of leaders talking coronavirus. To watch for yourself, go here.
Note the bottle of Purell on the table.
Here's the lineup.
- Sylvia Matthews Burwell, President American University
- David Skorton,President and CEO, Association of American Medical Colleges
- Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO, AARP
- Peter Scher, Chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Region & Head of Corporate Responsibility, JP Morgan Chase & Co.
- Roger Krone, Chairman and CEO, Leidos
- Matt Kelly, CEO, JBG SMITH
- John DeGioia, President, Georgetown University
Friday, 7:41 a.m.
Today we issued this free resource—starting Monday, a daily newsletter for people who are helping leaders lead through coronavirus. If you'd like to sign up, click here.
Friday, 7:40 a.m.
Lane Tech high school soccer season suspended. Might seem little to you, but when it’s your kid's whole heart, her tears are yours.
Friday, 7:38 a.m.
An well-reported story in The Washington Post about the making of President Trump's ineffective speech Wednesday night—and really, the making of most ineffective speeches: The writing was a rush job, the speech was unrehearsed and the speaker ad-libbed (in this case introducing tragic errors that weren't in the original text).
In the most scripted of presidential settings, a prime-time televised address to the nation, President Trump decided to ad-lib — and his errors triggered a market meltdown, panicked travelers overseas and crystallized for his critics just how dangerously he has fumbled his management of the coronavirus.
[Trump] … knew he’d screwed up by declaring Wednesday night that his ban on travel from Europe would include cargo and trade, and acknowledged as much to aides in the Oval Office as soon as he’d finished speaking ….
Thursday, 4:35 p.m.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, writing in The Washington Post:
Leading in this crisis would be a difficult rhetorical task for anyone. It demands a careful balance of urgency and reassurance. It calls for sacrifices from all Americans, even though the risk falls heaviest on the ill and elderly. Fighting a pandemic requires an atmosphere of confidence and trust and involves the suspension of deep differences in pursuit of the common good. Leaders are rising to that challenge in every corner of the country.
And the work of all of those leaders might benefit from the president’s silence.
I keep thinking of a little incident that happened a long ago but that remains vivid in my memory. Some friends and I were at a bar, noontime; we hadn't seen each other in a long time and we were catching up. At intervals, a rheumy-eyed barfly, perhaps still tipsy from the night before, was interjecting comments into our banter, trying to engage us in conversation. We humored her for awhile, but there was a moment when it became disruptive. And one of my pals turned to her suddenly and looked her straight in the eye and said: "Okay—no more talking."
It seemed so brutal.
And yet so necessary.
I never thought I'd want to say it as desperately as I do to the President of the United States of America.
Thursday, 2:44 p.m.
Charles Pierce, writing last year, in Esquire:
In my life, I have watched John Kennedy talk on television about missiles in Cuba. I saw Lyndon Johnson look Richard Russell squarely in the eye and and say, "And we shall overcome."
I saw Richard Nixon resign and Gerald Ford tell the Congress that our long national nightmare was over. I saw Jimmy Carter talk about malaise and Ronald Reagan talk about a shining city on a hill. I saw George H.W. Bush deliver the eulogy for the Soviet bloc, and Bill Clinton comfort the survivors of Timothy McVeigh's madness in Oklahoma City. I saw George W. Bush struggle to make sense of it all on September 11, 2001, and I saw Barack Obama sing "Amazing Grace" in the wounded sanctuary of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
These were the presidents of my lifetime. These were not perfect men. They were not perfect presidents, god knows. Not one of them was that. But they approached the job, and they took to the podium, with all the gravitas they could muster as appropriate to the job. They tried, at least, to reach for something in the presidency that was beyond their grasp as ordinary human beings.
Thursday, 10:59 a.m.
My Facebook feed indicates that people are reacting to coronavirus in these ways:
Trying to be helpful. (Occasionally by mansplaining, which women do too.)
Trying to lend perspective. (Also occasionally by mansplaining.)
Implying that this is happening because everyone is dumb and cowardly except themselves.
Ripping on the president for being the feckless son of a bitch they always knew he was.
Pretending it's not happening.
(My own blog indicates that I'm reacting in all these same ways.)
Thursday, 10:35 a.m.
This is now becoming a place where I just keep stuff, publicly. A head of exec comms for a big nonprofit writes:
One tactic I'm taking that may be worth sharing: I'm changing a lot of internal comms originally written as "COVID's impact on our operations" to "Our operational responses to COVID."In addition to being less dire and more hopeful, this approach frames the organization as taking active steps to protect staff from the pandemic, versus being helpless in the pandemic's wake. We are indeed helpless to a large degree, but I believe the "driver" vs "victim" approach is both more comforting and more leadership-focused, which are things anxious staff wants and needs to hear.
Thursday, 10:13 a.m.
Posted by my friend Randall White.
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." —Thomas Paine, Dec. 23, 1776
Thursday, 9:50 a.m.
Teenage daughter home from with cold, teacher wife sent home with cold. Here's a picture I just took on my phone, before everyone, including the Springer Spaniel, went to sleep.
Now I'm trying to work over the snoring. It's not going well.
And honestly, the to-do list is dwindling, as items are being skipped due to: Impossible to plan for now, hard to think about at the moment, don't give a fuck about.
Must replace those items with something (safe, and potentially constructive) to do with hands.
Otherwise, just worry. And as I once noted on a Lutheran church sign while riding my motorcycle through Altona, Ill. (pop. 531): "Worrying is like praying for what you don't want!"
Thursday, 8:20 a.m.
Without making a direct comparison between the two events, this (not this) is what it's supposed to sound like. (Unvarnished truth and full-throated determination bolded, for emphasis.)
Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:
Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.
Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.
Wednesday, 5:56 p.m.
Time to dust off your Kipling, my friends:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too …
Wednesday, 4:31 p.m.
Healthy eyes always scan for silver linings. Yesterday my wife and I calmly agreed that if we're locked in for any length of time, we're going to force our teenage daughter to watch the entire Sopranos series. That much, we do know. And then we started to make a grocery list.
Wednesday, 1:36 p.m.
Partial text exchange with a speechwriter for a big nonprofit:
Speechwriter: "I suppose this week is answering an important philosophical question: What if there are speechwriters and no places left to speak?"
Me: "The answer is: [There are] executive communicators, and new ways to help leaders reach the audiences that need them even more."
Wednesday, 12:30 p.m.
For some reason, Writing Boots correspondent Sharon McIntosh and I have been thinking of the Joseph Mitchell character who said, “I feel like I’ve been hit on the head with a cow.”
Wednesday, 7:59 a.m.
An exec comms chief for a big and well-known organization writes:
Between us, internal comms executives are holding back on our CEO weighing in because they want reactive policy announcements to come from emergency and safety departments. They want to "save him for the right moment" when things are more stabilized. I feel that, even separate from policy announcements, staff still needs to hear acknowledgment, compassion, and care from their leader, even as—and maybe because—things are chaotic.
What would help is knowing other CEOs are making internal communications with staff. Do you have any examples of that—even a list of companies where CEOs are sending all-staff memos? That would help me make the case that a CEO has a unique responsibility here. The Internal Comms team only sees it in terms of the information and recommendations.
Of course the exec comms chief is dead right, I told him; and I promised I'd issue a call for quantitative evidence or qualitative examples of CEOs speaking to employees.
Meanwhile, my take? If this CEO understood the right and proper role of a leader at this moment, she or he would goddamn insist on talking to employees right now, the internal comms staffers be damned. If CEOs are hiding behind internal comms' skirts, it's because they don't like to speak until they can mansplain that everything's going to be all right. And right now, they have no idea if everything's going to be all right—or when, or how.
As Franklin Roosevelt might have told someone who suggested he wait to discuss Pearl Harbor until after we had Japanese fleet under control, it's possible—and it's essential to be a leader without being the Great and Powerful Oz.
Here's what that looks like on coronavirus, as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sits down with knowledgable people and asks them commonsense questions while exuding calm, logic and even good humor.
Why can't your CEO do something like this? How can your CEO not?
Tuesday, 6:20 p.m.
Why do I keep writing about corporate CEOs in this coronavirus series? Partly because I work with the people who help them communicate. But mostly because I think CEOs, despite the obvious limitations of their view of life, through the window of a Gulfstream G550, have by default become some of the world's most credible leaders in a time when credible leaders are exactly what we need.
At the Executive Communication Council Founders meeting in Phoenix, we talked a lot about how corporate CEOs are increasingly looked to for statements of comfort, on issues that seem far afield from their natural sphere of expertise. CEOs, who we always distrusted because they were obviously so self-interested.
These days, that self-interest is what makes CEOs credible: To be self-preserving CEO, you have to be accommodate a broad swath of publics: employees, customers, investors, regulators, community people. That's a much bigger and more diverse group of constituents than President Trump is playing to at the moment.
I wrote a few years ago at a meeting of people who serve CEOs:
A secular society increasingly distrustful of its own government and with a press discredited as “fake” by large swaths of the public, is singing, as one participant put it, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”
And to whom are people turning for principled leadership and cultural compass points? Of all things, corporations and other large institutions. With an erratic president and a discredited intellectual elite, people need someone to trust, someone to know the responsible, sensible, sustainable “corporate” view on gun control, transgender restrooms, gay marriage, Confederate monuments, immigration, Black Lives Matter, Obamacare, tax reform, kneeling during the National Anthem and climate change.
What social activists long decried as amoral self-interest in corporations is now treasured as impartial interest in sustainability. “Trump can pull out of Paris,” said one participant. “But UPS can’t.”
Which is why what Apple CEO Tim Cook says at a moment like this means more to me in almost every instance than what the President, the Vice President or the Speaker of the House says.
Because if he's caught being dead wrong in his assessment of coronavirus, the consequences are much more immediate. He's not omnipotent, but he'll be careful about what he says. And so I'll listen carefully to what he says.
(Here's what he's saying.)
Tuesday, 3:21 p.m.
My old man (center, with the badass aviators) was a pilot, and his advice was always: "Keep your airspeed up."
What can we do that's productive (and not tail-chasing)? Hey, it hit me on the third run I've taken this week to clear my head (and keep my airspeed up): How about checking in with everyone you know and love who's sort of old and has an underlying condition, and calmly but frankly asking them what they're thinking about all this, what they're doing about it, and whether I can help.
That it's taken me a couple weeks of mayhem to have that thought led me to another aviation thought: Yes, keep your airspeed up, but don't go into a dive.
Pro tip for businesspeople:
Email promos that you scheduled to go out a week ago will sound tone-deaf this week—like the one I just got from a company urging me to enter a public relations awards program: "You still have time to enter, so don’t panic."
And another promo, from a different company, promotes an April conference with "3 days of hands-on, interactive training."
If Orbitz is going to leave the nation on hold for a month, it owes us to at least refresh its list of songs about flying and travel.
David Gray, "Sail Away with Me Honey"
Steve Miller Band, "Fly Like an Eagle"
Nora Jones, "Come Away With Me"
Tom Petty, "Learning to Fly"
Marc Cohn, "Walking in Memphis"
Tuesday 7:18 a.m.
You know what I always say (or have been saying since last week, anyway): If you can't take heart, take action.
"Everyone is staring at us communicators with blank looks," said a guy who handles communication for the CEO of one large company. I know lots of those people, and I asked them how they're answering those blank looks.
Laura Hunter, who handles executive and internal communications at Google Cloud, answered:
Probably the most surprising thing I've said to my team and our execs is that it's going to be OK—we've done this before (but with worse tools).
Post 9/11—when asking people to travel was seen as insensitive and yet we were all commanded to carry on for the greater good—we had a much harder time using technology to bring speaker and audience together. I remember trying to book satellite trucks as I was rewriting scripts to try and take a long-planned seminar virtual. People are much more used to the virtual conference room—and sending out a link to invitees is easy to do and both speakers and audiences have well developed norms and expectations.
The most important coaching is still to stay focused on the audience. How that happens is definitely different when you're facing an empty room and don't have the immediacy of facial expressions to tell you how it's going, but the principle remains.
That said—the great thing about the speechwriters I know is that we've all adapted to a multi-channel reality. Can't deliver it live? Op-Ed! Tiny in-person audience—let's edit it into a video for YouTube. That kind of flexibility about the where/how, while staying true to the speaker/audience is why I love working with speechwriters.
Speaking of which, the Professional Speechwriters Association created this webinar last week—
—and when it turned out better than we expected and the crisis got worse, we decided to make the recording available for free. Lots of wisdom here, not just for Fortune 100 companies—for everyone on whom people rely. Listen here.
Monday, 3:16 p.m. Central
If you're like me, you've gone through a few emotional phases over the last few weeks and certainly over the last few days. For instance, I made a home video.
As the Dow Jones fell so fast they had to pause it this morning, I dug out from emails that had come in while I rocked and reeled with my friends over an epic funeral weekend in Cleveland.
Occasionally I checked out Facebook, where I noted anecdotally that my conservative friends are blaming the coronavirus and its blowback on the media, and worrywarts who they feel are susceptible to it. (Hysterics, with underlying conditions.)
A one comment:
Let’s stop freaking out about this damn Coronavirus that has been hyped-up by the mainstream media and social media. It is a flu strain, and yes those who are elderly or have health issue should take necessary pre-cautions. For the rest of us wash your damn hands and use common sense.
There are 10,000,000 cases of flu in the US every year.
Why is this happening? Human beings crave something to worry about. Given the lack of impeachment and war and local famine, we're stampeding ourselves over a stuffy head, mild fever, and chest congestion.
I don't deny this emotional aspect of the situation. For some people, communal fear is better than lonely desperation. My mother was near-suicidally depressed much of the time when I was a kid, and she kept a journal about it. Near the beginning of an edited version, she wrote:
Have Everything. Everything Going Along Beautifully. Am way past food, shelter and transportation; new baby girl, three year-old son thrive; cleaning woman does windows; agent says one of my books looks to be very close to publication; husband sent me rose because I have a cold—and alarm goes off mornings like firing squad: I can’t get up.
Can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t read to little ones. Every time start to read, start to cry. …
Catch myself hoping for bad news, tragedy, something could really sink teeth into, overcome.
I remember guiltily relating to that when 9/11 happened, and at a few other moments of national and local tragedy. I remember feeling like screaming (in the middle of the sorrow and fear): How do you like your fucking strategic marketing plans and your tidy PowerPoint decks and your fancy phones now?
But I'm not 32 anymore. I have worked very, very hard to build a sustainable business, to save for my daughter's college tuition, to own a house from whose front door I emerge every Sunday morning and say a little agnostic prayer in thanks for another week of being able to afford the New York Times. I have a strategic marketing plan of my own. And I have a conservative side.
So of course I hope my conservative friends are right that we're overreacting.
But I don't think they've cornered the market on courage.
After my posts last week about taking a knee, I got a note from a speechwriter the depth of whose personal courage has been demonstrated to me beyond a doubt over the years. Of my hundreds of professional correspondents, I respect no one's emotional strength more.
I read that you had a bad day, I just wanted to tell you I laughed.
I think of you as being 100% on the ball every minute of the day. I really appreciated you sharing your bad day.
It occurred to me that anecdotally I am aware that writers (& speechwriters) often suffer (alone) from anxiety and depression, and struggle with alcohol/substance abuse. I include myself in this.
She said one recent day, "I was so stressed in the morning that I started vomiting in the shower. No hangover, no pregnancy, no flu. … It was scary as all hell."
And then, of course, she went to work.
As we all must. For each other, for ourselves, the best way we know how.
And we must each summon maximum courage, without sane leadership in the White House—or at the very least, without a broadly respected leader who can comfort a whole country by telling us, for instance, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
"I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear," said writer Marilynne Robinson two years ago. "What it comes down to—and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently—is that fear is an excuse. 'I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn't.' … Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I've never seen in my life."
May we find a way to understand each other's fear, and overcome our own, and as Kurt Vonnegut advised was the meaning of life, "To help each other through this thing, whatever it is."