By Sean O’Leary, Vice President, Susan Davis International

As the coronavirus crisis began to explode across the United States, I was sitting in one of the nation’s then-few hot spots.

On the first weekend of March, I was in Boston for an IPREX leadership conference with two dozen of my colleagues from across the country as well as Europe. Before we departed, we were alerted that the hotel of our conference was the site of the now-infamous Biogen conference that since reported more than 100 coronavirus cases. To say it was a shock would be a ridiculous understatement.

Preceding that announcement, we had spent hours discussing leadership and what traits separate leaders from managers. One particular trait stood out because of the situation — the notion that leaders are comfortable in being uncomfortable.

That stuck with me because I have always prided myself on being able to do just that. Starting my career as a newspaper reporter for a small daily meant that nearly every day featured uncomfortable situations, especially being fresh out of college. I had never covered a plane crash before. I had never seen a dead body. I had never been yelled at by a government official.

But in that moment when we found out about our coronavirus connection, every one of us in that room felt uncomfortable. Frankly, I don’t think I felt comfortable again until I returned home, cleaned my clothes, dumped my duffel in the trash, and took a shower.

In the weeks since, the crisis has only intensified. Our firm is now helping clients navigate these uncertain times and unexpected crises. The time has, though, allowed me to fully realize what it means to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

As a PR pro, it has come down to messaging to myself. Some examples:

Uncomfortable: We Have No Time

Comfortable: We Have More Time Than We Think

The coronavirus, both the disease and its impacts, move faster than any of us prepared for. What you think is reality at 9 a.m. can be outdated by lunch. It adds to the chaotic atmosphere, because there is a constant feeling that there is no time to think about things.

In reality, we have adequate time to strategize. Even if the Associated Press needs a statement within the hour, there’s still time to take a step back and take stock of the big picture before putting your fingers on the keyboard. This is not a time to panic or do something too fast for the sake of getting it done. The right decision will still be the right decision, even if it takes a few minutes or a few hours longer than initially anticipated.

Uncomfortable: We Are Not Prepared For This

Comfortable: No One Was

No matter how you’re feeling today, from a personal or business perspective, you can rest assured that you’re not alone. While virtually every company and organization on the planet has a crisis response plan, very few were properly prepared for a global pandemic on this scale. In the communications world, there’s no set playbook for how to deal with this, unless you employ someone over the age of 120 who lived through the Spanish Flu in 1918.

We are all figuring this out on the fly, together, and not every answer is right. We’ll make mistakes. But we need to learn from them and quickly adjust. We need to be flexible and transparent. That’s what good leaders do, and that’s what we can do on every level.

For communications purposes, this is a time to learn about your messaging and your audience. Are you providing them the information they want? How are your crisis response plans working in practice? What needs to change? The answer to these questions will help you for years to come.

Uncomfortable: We’ve Never Been More Isolated

Comfortable: We’ve Never Been Closer 

Much of my daily routine centers around meetings and in-person events. Washington, D.C. is a very traditional market where so much of what we do every day is focused on relationships. It’s about seeing reporters and clients. It’s about going to events to network and shake hands. It’s about getting coffee or enjoying a drink with partners and colleagues.

We can’t do any of that right now, which is hard and strange. But as a community, we’ve never been closer together. We all have a shared experience right now, similar to how D.C. and the country came together following 9/11. This is something that will, for better or worse, bond us.

On Wednesday, I spent hours texting just about everyone in my phone to see how they were doing. Many were friends and family that I talk to frequently. Still, some were people that I hadn’t spoken to in months or longer, for various reasons. It was a moment to say hi, to check in, and let others know that we’re all in this together.

The same applies to our work relationships. Companies are Zooming away on a daily basis to keep work going. It’s not a bad idea to reach out to people you know through business, using LinkedIn or via email just to see how they’re doing. In times like these, a little compassion will go a long way.

Hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll be able to return to our previously comfortable lives. For now, it’s uncomfortable, and that’s okay.