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How offering historical context helps in a crisis

April 7, 2020 • Rick Beller

The following is a reprint of an article featured in Ragan’s PR Daily on March 31, 2020.

During this unprecedented time, people are eager for assurance.

Words matter, but context is often more powerful for building belief and confidence. Context proves an organization’s resilience, its ability to navigate rough seas and manage through a crisis.

Whether your organization is 10, 100 or 250 years old, it too has likely confronted situations that rendered the future uncertain. Unprecedented moments may call for unprecedented actions, so suggesting pat answers runs the risk of undermining credibility and trust.

We counsel clients to complement empathetic, transparent and informative communications with tangible experiences and context to help audiences understand what the organization is made of—its character and values. This approach is central to any organization’s ability to navigate an unprecedented challenge like the one we all face today.

We must not minimize the risks and challenges that are emerging as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, having studied countless historical responses to crises, it’s helpful to look to moments of truth from the past and discern what truly enabled your organization to navigate them.

You are likely to find intelligent, thoughtful and decisive guidance. You are also likely to find evidence that your organization’s culture, character and values played significant roles. Perhaps these examples will provide your leaders with what they need to inform their decision-making as well as ways to authenticate communications that inspire calm, trust and confidence.

Find a metaphor for your organization or industry.

Pictured: a newspaper advertisement for Fireman's Fund Insurance Company.

Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire, Fireman’s Fund Insurance was devastated. The company’s headquarters lay in ruin. However, even in this moment of destruction, it knew it had to be there for customers who likely suffered far worse. Fireman’s Fund sent a telegram to all company branches, agents and business associates that read, “All hands safe and well. Fire now entirely extinguished. Unable to ascertain liabilities until vaults are open. The Fireman’s Fund flag is still flying and nailed to the mast.”

This messaging was especially resonant among employees and agents, as Fireman’s Fund had a long history of providing nautical insurance. The term “nailed to the mast” reflected the company’s commitment to the shipping industry.

Fast forward to 1989, San Francisco once again suffered a devastating earthquake that resulted in near-biblical destruction. The CEO of Fireman’s Fund, a student of history who was deeply familiar with the company’s archives, knew exactly what to say. The morning after the earthquake, Fireman’s Fund placed an ad in all major newspapers: “Fireman’s Fund flag is flying and nailed to the mast.”

The message was important for two reasons. First, it conveyed that the insurer was still open for business. Second, it was a historical proof point that its employees could rally around. It showed that those who had worked before them had endured similar hardships and had come out on the other side as part of an organization with character and resilience.

Use imagery that reflects the current challenge.

This is a photograph from the 1931 Hankow Flood.

Global insurer AIG is no stranger to natural disaster. For more than a century, it has responded to policyholders’ needs through adversity and peril. This dedication originated with founder Cornelius Van Der Starr, who established AIG’s predecessor American Asiatic Underwriters to insure U.S. expats living in China.

In 1931, the Yangtze flooded the city of Hankow, including AIG’s local offices. The insurer moved to the second and third floors of the same building so it could continue to serve customers and the community. This story has been shared by AIG with accompanying imagery as a way to highlight its dedication to its communities.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, when Hurricane Harvey devastated the Gulf Coast in 2017 and AIG employees went out in kayaks to help their neighbors. Don Paullo, a trader in AIG’s Private Capital Group, rescued more than 100 neighbors and their pets.

This story and others, which are captured on the company’s 100th anniversary website, illustrate a culture dedicated to the common good. These anecdotes will no doubt be called upon in the future to rally employees around a shared cause.

Draw inspiration from an important quote.

Pictured: the company logo for Nationwide.

Nothing rallies the troops around a cause more than an inspirational quote from the past—whether it’s from a company founder or another important leader, or simply a quote that has become etched into the ethos of the company itself.

When the world was rocked by 9/11, and then by the Enron and WorldCom scandals, corporate America felt rudderless, and many stakeholders no longer trusted financial institutions. In short, there was a crisis of faith.

Nationwide Insurance’s new CEO, Jerry Jurgensen, believed that the scandals came about not because of bad accounting but because of weak corporate cultures. During the roller coaster of the early 2000s, Jurgensen focused on reinforcing Nationwide’s strong culture, using the phrase “On Your Side” as the organization’s North Star.

The phrase started out as an advertising slogan in the 1960s but had grown into a guiding philosophy for the company. Jurgensen urged employees to live the ethos embodied by “On Your Side” to show that Nationwide was not just an insurer but also a trusted neighbor and community partner.

Cooperation and sacrifice of become the stuff of legends.

This is a photograph of 3 Royal Air Force planes deployed during World War 2. British automaker Bentley manufactured the engines used in these airplanes.

In the midst of today’s COVID-19 crisis, British automaker Bentley has closed its production lines to protect its workers. However, instead of becoming downtrodden over lost profits, Bentley has partnered with the British government to design and produce ventilators to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

Bentley Chairman and CEO Adrian Hallmark likened his engineers’ contributions today to Bentley’s work on jet engines for the Royal Air Force during World War II. “I like to remember that in just two years, the Spitfire engine . . . went from 1,500 to 2,700 horsepower,” he said. “When needs must, we can perform, and I’m sure the same would be true for ventilators.”

Most wartime feats become the stuff of legend. People repeat and remember these stories with pride, as reminders of sacrifice and cooperation. Bentley’s story has encouraged a renewed sense of purpose and public service for this private and exclusive brand.

In another 80 years, a new generation of company leaders may point to the story from 2020, when engineers pivoted to ventilator production, as motivation for employees during a difficult time.

All of these examples demonstrate how major global brands have used their unique heritage to inform and inspire people and prove their resilience during a crisis. Not all organizations have experienced crises like the ones illustrated here, but we all face the same unprecedented challenge in 2020.

The stories of leadership that come out of this crisis will provide the basis for sound decision-making in the future, and effective communications that provide reassurance when people need it most.

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