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Storyteller-in-Chief: How 9/11 Prepared Me for COVID-19 (or Didn’t)

Thought Leadership

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was home in Portland, sound asleep, when my landline rang. It was my sister calling from Boston. “We’re being attacked!” she screamed. “Are you watching TV?”

I jumped out of bed and turned on CNN, just in time to see the last plane crash into the World Trade Center. Stunned, I tried to reach my husband, who was in Chicago on business. Will they attack there, too?

I thought of my other sister, who was scheduled to be in New York on business that week. I was disoriented and frightened, then after a few hours, relieved to find everyone was OK. I was lucky. As the weeks passed, I learned of colleagues’ spouses and friends of friends who had been killed.

From a business perspective, 9/11 was jarring and scary, but we got through it. The year 2001 marked my third year in business — it was a blur. We lost money when media didn’t clear and jittery clients canceled.

But it was a short-term blip and things returned to normal. I fondly recall the goodwill of the country for a few weeks after 9/11. People were kind and respectful to each other, especially on airplanes.

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has been like confronting a slow-moving 9/11. Unlike a terrorist attack, you see it coming but have no power to stop it. I’m wondering how it will end.

Many of my friends own small businesses that are now dead in the water.

COVID-19 is a mixed bag for the advertising industry. At Rain the growth agency, our clients are primarily e-commerce brands, which are faring better than many other categories. Still, we have postponed TV productions, experienced last-minute cancellations and had major media packages that need to be reconfigured.

Our new-business machine has come to a complete halt, which will certainly affect us into 2021. That said, we feel fortunate to still be in business.

My main concern right now is keeping our 240 people employed. We’re in the midst of a recession unlike any other. In a normal recession, people in advertising can generally find work. Right now, there are few employment options until this virus is over.

So our first job is to keep everyone employed. That means taking great care of our clients and making their jobs easier. That means reacting quickly and going above and beyond. It requires high-touch communication driven by data. Our clients are under enormous pressure, and it’s our responsibility to help them succeed.

Second, we have to challenge ourselves. Are we operating as efficiently as possible? Do we have the right technology and support for this new way of working? Over the course of 24 hours, we became a “work-from-home” company with little interruption to our business. We started planning for the big Pacific Northwest earthquake in 2017, so we already had a business continuity plan in place.

Third, we have to support our employees in new ways. How do we help working parents deal with homeschooling their kids without support, and perhaps with an unemployed spouse? Our entire executive team has agreed to think creatively by allowing flexible work hours, exploring job sharing for those who don’t want to work full-time and redeploying positions that are generally “boots on the ground.”

We’ve given our administration team new duties to assist other departments. We started a “work-from-home” Slack channel for sharing tips on everything from home fitness to keeping kids busy.

To provide additional help to those with kids at home, we are sponsoring the Fab Lab’s “Digital Daycare” by Crazy Aunt Lindsey, a local YouTube star who streams a live show for kids K-5, specifically reaching children who are home due to quarantine.

Lastly, above all else, we are preserving company culture, with an eye toward the future. We’ve instituted a few general rules: Communicate, communicate and overcommunicate.

We’ve asked all employees to use Zoom video for calls with clients and colleagues. It’s important to see each other. Our managers do regular “stand-up video huddles,” with surprise visits from senior executives.

We have daily executive team meetings to discuss client issues and operational problems. “Make quick decisions and be consistent” is our mantra. Zoom happy hours are a great thing! I have been speaking to the staff, keeping them apprised of developments within the company and encouraging them to weather the storm.

We are financially stable, and while I cannot guarantee the future, the ship is sailing with the wind at our back.

Many months after Sept. 11, I was on a flight to New York City when the pilot came on to announce Osama Bin Laden had been killed in a raid in Pakistan. Everyone cheered. I felt sad because I cheered too. I wonder what we will cheer for when COVID-19 is over.

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