SMC’s Communications Department’s presentation focused on business’s responses to COVID-19.
By Riley Mulcahy
The Saint Mary’s Communications Department hosted “Making Sense of Communication in Times of Crisis” last Tuesday. The event was sponsored in part by the Patricia and Roy E. Disney foundation, which focuses on different areas of Communications each year. Past events include the Future of Journalism, Gender, Body, and Technology. This year’s event is how times can shape communication and how to make sense of it.
During COVID-19, businesses have been faced with an unimaginable situation, a pandemic that has closed down the country’s economy. However, many companies, such as grocery stores, are considered “essential,” meaning they must find ways to attract new customers. The tension of having to deal with an international pandemic and figure out ways to market yourself is hugely demanding. Having to take care of essential employees and serve goods critical to customers at a time of crisis brings a lot of stress on business owners.
The tough dilemma COVID-19 has created made it nearly impossible for business to be successful was the night’s topic, moderated by Professor Aaron Sachowitz of Saint Mary’s College. The panelists included Dr. W. Tim Coombs of Texas A&M University and Professor Samuel Mccormick of San Francisco State. Dr. Coombs’s research specialty is in organizational communication, and has won numerous awards during his career for expertise in Communications. Professor Mccormick has published books on rhetoric and co-editor of the book series Rhetoric & Public Culture: History, Theory, Critique.
The night began with fifteen minutes from each panelist responding to the topic, how are companies responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Coombs started his remarks with an assertion that COVID-19 is different from anything any business has ever seen because they reacted to a situation that they did not create. Most instances of Crisis Communication are because of a human-made problem, not a virus. Dr. Coombs argued that since the crisis is not human-made, it is not the business crisis; however, they are “accountable for how they react to the crisis.”
Dr. Coombs pointed to the idea that COVID-19 has created an environment in which businesses must fight for customers in ways they never have. Instead of worrying about their reputation, companies must rise to the moment in regards to safety. Customers want to be reassured that CDC guidelines are being followed, not necessarily if they have access to their favorite brands. According to Dr. Coombs, businesses are “in part judged by how you react to the crisis.” If customers do not feel safe shopping at an essential business, they can go to another store or get their essentials delivered from their home.
Professor Mccormick focused on the language that businesses use to attract customers, specifically an “appropriation” of popular/catchy terms that customers could relate to. COVID-19 has presented businesses with an identity crisis because they must figure out how to respond to a pandemic and how to respond to social unrest. According to Professor Mccormick, regarding systematic racism and the protests due to police brutality, there is a sense that companies “Don’t aspire, be it.” Professor Mccormick refers to companies that have come out with 2-5 year plans for the sake of looking like they care about systemic racism, rather than implementing changes as quickly as possible to create a safer, more tolerant environment.
COVID-19 has created a space that makes it difficult for businesses to thrive; however, it has opened many doors for companies to understand the importance of Crisis Communication. In the words of Professor Mccormick, “All communication is rooted in Crisis Communication.” Even though not everyone can understand owning a business, communication is an essential skill that everyone can relate to. The event encapsulates the stresses we feel and brings light to effective communication in crisis times, which is not discussed broadly for COVID-19 times.
Melanie Moyer '22,