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

 
 

Kyle Judah is executive director of Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy of Lilie

When Kyle Judah accepted his position as executive director at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, he had spent less than 48 hours in the city of Houston. In fact, his first two months in the role have been spent completely remote and out of town.

Still, his limited in-person interaction with the city and with Rice made an impact.

"One of the things I found so exciting about what's going on in Houston right now that, quite frankly, was incredibly attractive about the opportunity to come and join Lilie and Rice was that Houston has these big pillar companies in energy and health care and all these critical areas that the world, the economy, and the society needs," Judah says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's all in Houston right now."

Judah and Lilie's goal is to help identify the innovation happening on campus at Rice and bring it to the world. And, he says, Rice as a whole has a huge place in the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. The challenge is identifying what industries Houston and Rice have an opportunity to disrupt.

"We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

Another priority Judah has leading Lilie, which was founded at Rice in 2015, is to make sure opportunities are available for everyone. This month, the university launched the Rice Experiment Fund — a $500 semesterly stipend available to all students. The funds are meant to be used on early market testing and experiments, which can be prohibitive obstacles for students.

"We want to make sure that the diversity of entrepreneurship at Rice speaks to the diversity of the city in our backyard," says Judah, adding that diversity and inclusion is at the top of mind for programs like this.

Judah shares more on where he plans to lead Lilie and his early impressions on Houston's startup scene in the podcast episode. Overall, he's found it extremely welcoming.

"I found that everyone here wants Houston to win," he says. "We're really playing as a broader collective, and that's incredibly special."

You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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