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Time to Advance Five Principles and Public Diplomacy in the COVID-19 Battle

As China tries to reshape the narrative about the novel coronavirus that is believed to have started infecting people in Wuhan in late November or early December 2019, it is more than understandable that members of our United States government have pushed back.

So too have some of China's own citizens—including whistleblowing doctors and citizen journalists who have now gone missing.

I cannot but wonder "what might Harold say" to members of both the U.S. executive and legislative branches as they call out misinformation, whether here at home or from abroad, and seek to strengthen U.S. communications efforts. That would be the late Harold Burson, recognized by the industry publication PRWeek in 1999 as the most influential P.R. person of the 20th century.

His firm Burson-Marsteller—now Burson Cohn & Wolfe—was no stranger to Washington and to crisis management and was where I began my career. During my time, the firm 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 then 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 Hong Kong, and also Taiwan and Singapore in their efforts to face the ongoing pandemic of SARS-CoV2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.

Harold, an advocate for strong U.S. public diplomacy efforts and a mentor of mine, passed away this January in Memphis after complications from a fall at the age of 98. And, in February, I traveled from Southeast Asia where I am based with the Milken Institute to New York to speak at a memorial service for Harold.

There at his Lincoln Center memorial service, I shared five simple, enduring principles I learned from Harold. Our leaders in Washington should also take Harold's wisdom to heart, and come together to support a vigorous, integrated health and economic—and public diplomacy —response to COVID-19.

Be kind.

With a growing percentage of the world's population in 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, Harold 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 Harold would no doubt have agreed, even in these most difficult of times, particularly for people of color and others being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Be humble.

Corporate titans and presidents—including that other great communicator, Ronald Reagan—took to Harold. Every leader develops his or her style. And for Harold, leadership also meant a steely humbleness.

Think Yoda, more than General Douglas MacArthur. That is something 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 monthly meetings with Harold, "Trust but verify."

Be accountable.

In building a global business, Harold 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.

Earn trust.

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, Harold taught me, like a good reputation must be earned over time. That is true for nations to. 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 data and how that nation misled the World Health Organization and others during the SARS outbreak.

Tell the truth.

So, how to earn trust in the age of coronavirus? The solution, Harold 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 countries, businesses and individuals as we battle the direct and indirect consequences of the ongoing pandemic.

This past, February 15th, Harold would have celebrated his 99th birthday. He would not make it to 100 years of age—"I'm working on it!" he had said to me—but his story is not fully over. He will live on to 100 and beyond through his ideas, his values and through all of us—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 Washington and elsewhere, including China, in the 21st.


Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, served as Managing Director, Asia-Pacific for Burson-Marsteller. He is now managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.


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