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Coronavirus in the Events Industry: Precaution or Panic?

By Bob Priest-Heck

There’s a reason some people enjoy scary movies, roller coasters and parachuting out of airplanes. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with socialized fear — and when it’s experienced in a controlled situation, it can seem fun. In real-world situations, however, this kind of fear contributes to panic. And no good ever comes from that.

Like many of you, I have mixed reactions to the reports I see in the news about COVID-19. On the one hand, I am concerned for the many people who have been affected by the coronavirus. As the CEO of a multinational enterprise with multinational clients, I keenly follow the reports of the CDC and other official organizations monitoring the situation. And we have been proactive about doing our part to protect our people and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Precaution, planning, and preparation are the order of the day.

I admit, however, that I’ve been disturbed by the fear mongering I see in the media — social and otherwise — and even in casual conversations. Urging people to panic needlessly is counterproductive. And enjoying the disruption it causes is wrong on so many levels, especially as it is disrespectful to those whose suffering or threat from the virus is real and immediate.

My fallback position in addressing any challenge is to approach it from a design-thinking perspective. What is the nature of the threat? What does the data tell us about the risk? What is the upside and downside of any actions we might take? How do we improve our response? And improve again on that?

In a blog written a few years ago, I quoted my friend Bruce Mau as we launched a discussion about Freeman’s #1 design-thinking principle: “First inspire… lead by design.”

“It's actually helping people to see the potential in a way that they don't see,” Bruce said. “It's a very different methodology, when you say your job is to inspire …. Because you can't get there unless you take people with you…. The design-thinking methodology that Freeman has embraced is unique in that it is fundamentally a leadership methodology.”

Our industry is beset by travel restrictions and event cancellations, and it is up to leaders to offer a perspective and a plan. For this reason, Freeman is hosting an industry webinar on Thursday, that includes experts from the travel industry, employment law, and risk. We all agree that the safety of our people, our customers, and communities is our #1 priority — we can never lose sight of that. However, cancelling events could have long-term negative consequences for our people. Is that really what’s best, or even what’s advisable, in areas with no travel restrictions?

Obviously, this will all need to be sorted out on a case-by-case basis. When making a decision to postpone or cancel an event, it's important that clients and partners consider the following when making a decision that's best for their constituents:

  • Collaborating with industry leaders to offer tools for assessing the risks
  • Considering data-based approaches that lead to thoughtful, designed solutions that address the right problems
  • Helping clients think through the risks and rewards of hosting, postponing, or cancelling an event given the information at hand
  • Offering best practices to keep participants and events as safe as possible

As we collaborate in forming a response that will inspire our people — and each other — we have the opportunity to remain calm to be our best selves. Others may panic. Let’s choose to lead.

For more information, including a replay of our industry webinar, please visit our Coronavirus resources page.

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