As a globalised civilisation we were seemingly completely unprepared for the occurrence of a pandemic. The failure of leadership which helped the coronavirus proliferate has caused a day of economic reckoning and restructuring which will fundamentally change the contexts in which we all live. What are the career consequences of this for internal communicators as the curtain falls on significant parts of the old world we once knew?
The collapse of civilisation
…and laid in a row, were the Martians – dead! – slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds – 1897
And so ends the fictional account by one of my favourite authors H.G. Wells, of the Martian attempt to invade the Earth and vanquish mankind. The birth of a new alien civilisation on Earth stopped in its tracks by the simplest of organisms. Perhaps an allegory for what is currently happening to our own globalised civilisation, brought to its knees by another simple but deadly microscopic parasite, the coronavirus Covid-19.
What causes human civilisations to collapse and is this what is currently happening to our own?
Our history demonstrates that the collapse of civilisations usually involves one or more of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – Pestilence, War, Famine or Death, and the multitude of factors which proliferate them, including failures in economics, politics and leadership.
It seems that as a globalised civilisation we were completely unprepared for the occurrence of a pandemic, which was inevitably going to happen at some point in our hyper-connected and interdependent world. Our leaders, and the countries they represent, too distracted by their petty political differences and self-interest to adequately collaborate, anticipate and prepare.
A failure of leadership
In the 21st century, great and visionary leadership is in short supply and it feels to me that this is the single biggest contributing factor to the mess which we now find ourselves in. Compare the responses of some world leaders to the pandemic. Some acted swiftly and decisively, such as Prime Minister Jacinda Arderne in New Zealand which declared zero new cases of the coronavirus on Monday this week, a stark contrast to the response of the pandemic denier in the White House whose country now tops the global Covid death toll league table – his deficiency in leadership is so great that I can’t even bring myself to name the man here.
And then there is the flawed leadership and decision making in my own country, the UK, whose initial response seemed to be predicated on a ‘let it spread’ policy in the vain pursuit of developing herd immunity in a nervous population. Until came the shocking ‘reality check’ moment that coronavirus wasn’t just another version of the seasonal flu – with a consequent and swift about face in government policy, and a rapid lockdown that came too late.
Some of my fellow citizens have unfortunately paid the ultimate price for that delay, caught in the cross hairs of this more deadly disease, and as I write this it seems that the UK now has the highest death toll in Europe.
The day of reckoning (aka economic restructuring)
So, does the Covid-19 pandemic mark the beginning of the end of the epoch of globalised human civilisation? Despite the presence of all four horsemen in one form or another, I don’t think so, but the shockwaves it has caused have precipitated what economists blandly term an ‘economic restructuring’ which has profound implications for us all.
Watch the news, read a newspaper, track the chatter on social media and it certainly feels to me that we have ring side seats at some kind of day of reckoning as we witness this ‘restructure’ at close quarters. Significant parts of the old world we once knew are dying before our very eyes.
Aviation, hospitality, entertainment, foreign leisure and business travel, live sport and high street retail are all big sectors of the economy that will not survive the economic shock of the pandemic in their previous forms. There are also more subtle changes happening in other sectors that will be accelerated by a continuing observance of social distancing until a vaccine is found and deployed, for example public transport and a reduced capacity in manufacturing driven by the enforced presence of fewer people in these settings.
The career consequences for internal communicators
What does all of this mean for the career prospects of internal communicators like you and me?
Well, from a personal perspective it has caused me to question if I am still in the right job after over 20 years doing it, and the value that I bring to organisations and society more widely. As the pandemic has unfolded I have simply felt somewhat under-utilised and inadequate compared to some of the heroics being demonstrated by people in my own profession and in others. There are other people who just seem to be making more of a difference than I am able to right now and I am uncomfortable with my inability to do the same.
Perhaps this is (another) of those mid-life crises which I guess those of us of a certain age experience from time to time, often prompted by unpleasant and disruptive life events. Whatever it is, in the aftermath of this pandemic and on the assumption that I survive it, I know that I want the trajectory of my remaining career to be different and to include more meaningful work than it does now. Work that will enable others to derive more benefit from my communication skills and experience. I’m open to offers and suggestions as I begin to try to identify and make those adaptations.
For other internal communicators, some will end up being displaced by the rapid economic restructuring which is now happening in business and society. In some organisations there will either need to be fewer of them as industries contract, or their jobs will cease to exist as businesses go under and close. Sorry to be blunt about this, but it’s a fact.
Hopefully, for some this will mean moving to an internal communication role in another sector which has survived the economic restructure. For these people I want to offer some reassurance and encouragement that they know enough and are skilled enough to be able to jump sectors. During my career I’ve done this several times, so don’t let anyone tell you that lack of ‘sector experience’ is a barrier to a progression or sideways career move, it isn’t. We all have transferable internal communications skills which can be successfully applied in another context, we just need to be persuasive enough to help recruiters to get over their biases.
A quick glance at internal communication research, such as the annual Gatehouse State of the Sector Report, also reveals that we are all tussling with the same challenges such as improving leadership and line manager communication and the impact of digital technology, regardless of where we practice. So, if you’ve solved one of these conundrums in one sector you are well placed to do it in another, it’s just about adapting the solution to the circumstances.
In the thousands of years of human history, there are countless examples of civilisations adapting or transforming in response to some kind of disaster or crisis borne by the four horsemen. After several hundred years of existence one of the greatest civilisations, the mighty Roman Empire, ‘fell’ in 476 AD. In actual fact it didn’t fall at all, it just transformed into something else, driven by changes in economics, politics, leadership and the ideology of a new religion – Christianity.
What we are witnessing now is not just a pandemic, it is one of the great transformative events in our history which will fundamentally change the contexts and circumstances in which we all exist. As the curtain falls on the old world, we will hopefully all adapt as individuals and as a society. I, for one, certainly want to try and do so and be better as a result of it.
Civilisation will continue, it will just be different.