Commentary / World

Wisdom in the age of the coronavirus pandemic

20th Century Lessons for the 21st Century

My transit some three months back in February through Haneda Airport, from Bangkok and then on to the United States, was already a bit eerie as the novel coronavirus slowly made its presence known. Re-routed flights and limits on face mask purchases at Haneda’s airport shops were early hints of the world we now find ourselves in.

I was en route from Southeast Asia — where I am based with the Milken Institute — onward to Mississippi and then New York City for memorial services for Harold Burson, the late founder of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, with which I had once worked in Tokyo.

Over 30 years, Burson had become a longtime friend and mentor and been rightly described by PRWeek magazine as “the [20th] century’s most influentional PR figure.” When he passed away from complications from a fall, Burson at 98-years-old had seen over the course of his lifetime the start and end of both a world war and a polio epidemic, and the arrival of then-modern technologies that are modern no more, from the color television to the Sony Walkman.

What wisdom might Burson have shared today with Japan’s leaders as well as elsewhere in our globalized world in this unfolding age of the novel coronavirus? Through the decades, Burson and the firm he led would be involved in many of the crises, from pandemics to corporate disasters and blunders, as well as triumphs that would help define the practice of crisis management and crisis preparedness.

It was under Burson that my own international career would begin in the 1990s, taking me to Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong and back to New York after Sept. 11, 2001.

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

According to the World Health Organization, SARS appeared in November 2002 in southern China’s Guangdong province, just across the border from Hong Kong.

The first confirmed case of SARS in Hong Kong was in March 2003, and the city would go on to bear the disproportionate brunt of the deaths and economic impact outside of mainland China.

By July 2003, some 1,750 cases of the virus had been identified in Hong Kong, with nearly 300 people dying of the disease.

Lessons learned during those difficult times have now aided Hong Kong, and also Singapore and Taiwan, in their efforts to face the ongoing coronavirus pandemic caused by what is officially called SARS-CoV2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.

That time, nearly two decades ago, also came back to me as I transited in Tokyo this February and reflected on what I might say or write in remembrance of Burson.

As COVID-19 continues to take its toll on all too many of our elders, let us not forget the wisdom of people like him. Five points I had learned of from his example and that I shared at his memorial service at Lincoln Center in New York still very much apply today.

Burson might have passed away, but his timeless wisdom holds true today not just for Japan but for all countries, businesses and individuals as we battle the direct and indirect consequences of the ongoing pandemic.

Be kind

With much of the world’s population in lockdown, tensions driven by 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 Burson 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,” the Dalai Lama is famously said to have shared. And Burson would no doubt have agreed, even in these most difficult of times.

Be humble

Corporate titans and presidents — most famously, that other great communicator, U.S. President 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 U.S. Gen. 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 leaders will want to not declare “mission accomplished” too soon.

Be accountable

In building a global business, Burson 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.

Earn trust

A basic tenet of public relations, attributed to American humorist Will Rogers, could well have been attributed to Burson. “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.

That is echoed in legendary investor Warren Bufftet’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, Burson taught me, like a good reputation must be earned over time. And 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.

Tell the truth

So, how to earn trust in the age of coronavirus? The solution, Burson 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.

Those words of wisdom ring 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.

This past Feb. 15, Burson would have celebrated his 99th birthday. Imagine. Burson 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, Burson’s story is not fully over. He will live on to 100 and beyond through his ideas, his values and through all of us — whether family, friend, client or colleague — if each of us embrace his decency, his humanity, his wisdom.

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

Those might sound like old-fashion words of wisdom from a century past. The first few months of 2020 and an unfolding pandemic however, tell us they are 20th century lessons that must not be forgotten in the 21st in Japan and elsewhere.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, served as managing director, Asia-Pacific for Burson-Marsteller. Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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