Guest column

How your company should respond to the coronavirus, according to this Houston expert

Here's how to toe the line between being precautious and alarmist when it comes to your company's approach to COVID19, aka the coronavirus. Getty Images

News stories of COVID19, also known as the coronavirus, are spreading faster than the virus itself — you can't turn on the television or open your web browser without seeing them. The virus' rapidly climbing statistics provide compelling content for today's 24/7 news cycle, but the constant inundation of new information makes it difficult for most of us to discern fact from fiction. Unfortunately, the result is too often fear – whether warranted or not.

The coronavirus and its potential global impact has already weakened an otherwise strong US economy. Now, as the virus threatens to impact everything from the NCAA's March Madness to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, organizations are considering how best to respond to their constituents' concerns and communicate their action plans.

In a blog post this week, the social media giant, Twitter, strongly encouraged it's 5,000 employees around the globe to work from home. Other companies are banning non-urgent travel. And amid mounting fears related to the virus, organizers canceled CERAWeek, an annual energy industry conference in Houston, and the cancelation of Austin's SXSW followed. Interestingly, companies that have been demonstrating an abundance of caution are being viewed favorably by the media and general public. So, what should your company be doing?

Establish an action plan

There is no need to panic or overreact — instead, act reasonably and be prepared to react responsibly as circumstances change. Your plan may only involve restricting travel now, but may have to evolve to allow employees to work from home next month.

A company's response to the coronavirus outbreak should be dictated by the nature of its business activities, its geographic areas of operation and reach, and the spread of the virus itself. A manufacturing plant in rural Texas may not have to respond in the same way a hotel in San Francisco might.

Practice cleanliness and common sense

Amid all the noise, it is easy for common sense to give way to hysteria. However, experts agree that the coronavirus is transmitted much like the cold or flu. General cleaning, hand washing, and antiviral hand sanitizers can help prevent the spread of the virus.

Make common sense precautions a part of your plan. Ensure that common areas and restrooms in your workplace are being thoroughly cleaned. Make antiviral soaps and hand sanitizers available to employees and visitors. And most importantly, encourage employees to stay home if they are feeling sick or displaying any symptoms of illness.

Communicate

In any crisis, honest communication helps to quell fear and alleviate uncertainty, so take this opportunity to reach out to your employees. If you've established a plan, share it with them. If you've stocked the supply closet with Clorox wipes, let them know. And if you've yet to formalize a plan, simply assure your employees that you are closely monitoring the situation and that your team is prepared to respond if circumstances in your area or industry change.

Look for opportunity

It sounds distasteful, but it needn't be. 3M, the makers of surgical masks, have announced they will ramp up production to respond to increased demand. 3M didn't manufacture this crisis, but they are responding to it in a positive way.

Moreover, general practitioners and scientists in every media market are being interviewed as subject matter experts on viruses — these doctors probably never anticipated such publicity, but by sharing their expertise, they are providing a useful public service. Consider whether your company can provide a helpful product, service or resource.

The coronavirus isn't the typical business crisis — astute leadership cannot resolve it, nor can ingenuity quickly solve it. But in the coming months, strong leadership and resourcefulness will be needed to proactively plan, effectively respond and ultimately rebound without ever giving into fear.

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Terrie James is the senior corporate communications expert at Paige PR, a Houston-based public relations and marketing agency.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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