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Tina Casey headshot

A Lesson in Crisis Management: Seven Women on a Life-or-Death Mission to Restore Trust

By Tina Casey
Crisis Management

With more than two months to go before taking office, President-elect Joe Biden has already made fighting the COVID-19 pandemic his top priority, which means that his communications team will play a crucial role in an effort that could save tens of thousands of lives. Given that pressure, it is interesting that Biden has nominated women, who will be tasked often with crisis management, to occupy all seven senior positions on the team.

The coming year will be a test for women in crisis management, and Bidens decision could also be a teachable moment for corporations that have failed to prioritize gender diversity.

COVID-19 response and crisis management

Though not a businessman, President-elect Biden has clearly recognized that the fundamental elements of business crisis management apply seamlessly to government. It’s a lesson that President Trump never seems to have learned, for all his many years of experience in business.

Chief among those elements are leadership, communication, clarity of purpose and swiftness of action.

Biden set the tone on Saturday, November 7, in an address to the nation after the Associated Press confirmed that he won the Electoral College and the popular vote. Though his remarks were brief, Biden went straight to the point. He made the case for taking on COVID-19 above all else, and taking his guidance from science.

"Our work begins with getting COVID under control, he said. “We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality, or relish life's most precious moments — hugging a grandchild, birthdays, weddings, graduations, all the moments that matter most to us — until we get this virus under control.”

Biden followed up his words with action, again with an emphasis on science. Two days after addressing the nation, he announced the members of his COVID-19 Advisory Board, all experts in the relevant fields of epidemiology, public health and infectious diseases.

The breakdown of public trust

With the spotlight on COVID-19 response, the challenge facing Biden’s new communications team should be a familiar one to any CEO faced with a threat to brand reputation.

The task of repairing public trust during the COVID-19 crisis will be a formidable one. President Trump himself has spent the entire COVID-19 outbreak downplaying the threat, dismissing the science, undercutting his own public health experts and spreading conspiracy theories - and that is only the most recent manifestation of the public trust challenge.

In one form or another, the anti-science strain in American politics far predates Trump’s term in office. Legislation that places restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, for example, has long been based on made-up “facts” revolving around pregnancy prevention and abortion.

The political posturing on climate change provides another example. During the Obama administration, the ripple effect of climate change denial rose to new heights of ridiculousness. Even the simple act of changing a lightbulb became fraught with issues of personal freedom and political identity.

Public reaction to the lightbulb issue was a clear forewarning of the challenge that lay ahead for public health experts during the COVID-19 outbreak. After all, if people can be goaded into outrage over energy efficient lightbulbs, then wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of a lethal virus is perhaps a bridge too far.

Not coincidentally, President Trump has also embraced climate change denial and fostered outrage over light bulbs, while also undermining his own experts’ guidance on wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19.

The role of training and experience

Into this fire steps the seven newly named senior members of Biden’s communications team, announced on Monday.

In addition to supporting Biden’s emphasis on science and professionalism, the choice of an all-women team may reflect the President-elect’s awareness of the impact of women’s leadership on COVID-19 response globally.

Summing up the task ahead, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said, “Our country is facing unprecedented challenges–from the coronavirus pandemic to the economic crisis, to the climate crisis, and a long-overdue reckoning over racial injustice. To overcome these challenges, we need to communicate clearly, honestly, and transparently with the American people, and this experienced, talented, and barrier-shattering team will help us do that.”

“These communications professionals express our commitment to building a White House that reflects the very best of our nation,” Harris added.

As with the new COVID-19 Advisory Board, the seven nominees have extensive relevant experience in government and public policy, including Kate Bedingfield, Jen Psaki, Karine Jean-Pierre (pictured above), Ashley Etienne, Symone Sanders, Pili Tobar and Elizabeth Alexander.

It’s never too late to diversify

With the seven nominees, Biden has established the first White House communications team staffed at the senior level exclusively by women. In another first, six of the nominees are also mothers of young children.

However interesting the history-making angle is, it should not overshadow the main point. Years of professional training and relevant experience enabled these seven women to fill some of the most high-profile roles in the White House with an abundance of qualifications during a critical moment in the nation’s history, with innumerable lives at stake and long-term health consequences for untold numbers more.

Those qualifications don't just pop up out of thin air. They come from nurturing talent and recognizing the benefits of diversity early on.

Cracks in the seams of the tech industry and the fossil fuel industries already suggest that a failure to diversify from the ground up can have serious long-term consequences.

CEOs who have not absorbed the diversity lesson have a lot of catching up to do, but it is never too late to get started, and the Biden administration may provide just the guidebook needed in a time when a strong grasp of crisis management is more important now than ever before.

Image credit: Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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