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By: Arianne Cohen
In today’s corporate world, words matter—often more than even the most eagle-eyed leaders realize. And as we enter the second half of the year, companies are discovering that turning a page on the three-year-old pandemic is quite a challenge. Is the term “post-pandemic” insensitive to those still coming down with COVID-19? To those suffering from long COVID?
Indeed, leaders—along with their marketing and communications teams—are getting into hot water trying to frame the pandemic. Their hope is to convey a message that their firms are moving forward, past a terribly tragic, disruptive period and into the exciting next chapter. “The risk is that certain stakeholders may not be experiencing that, and take offense,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director of the Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations Center of Expertise at Korn Ferry.
The sensitivities around the term “post-pandemic” are many: stakeholders, including employees and investors, may still be reeling from pandemic deaths or recent illnesses, or be hampered by long-COVID or immunity issues. Other employees may have strong knee-jerk reactions to the introduction of “post- pandemic” initiatives, out of concern that workplace flexibility will disappear. This is particularly true of employees hired, often under flexible arrangements, during the last three years. “It’s impacting individuals’ ability to control their work-life balances,” says Peter McDermott, senior client partner in the Global Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations practice at Korn Ferry.
Employees’ mistrust of corporate “post-pandemic” efforts is, at least in some cases, understandable. They hear leaders presenting a “we’re done with this” mindset, and believe their firms are making way for the return of more traditional in-office requirements. “It’s being used as a way to get people back into the office, some of whom are not ready to,” says Andrés Tapia, global diversity and inclusion strategist at Korn Ferry.
This is all happening in a context in which stakeholders are particularly reactive to corporate wording and phrasing. Communications departments have always pored over word choice, but “words matter more now,” says Marshall. “We’re in a hypersensitive world.” Today’s standard for presenting inclusive language that does not inadvertently offend certain groups is sky-high.
So what’s the answer? As a rule of thumb, experts advise avoiding the term “post-pandemic” altogether in corporate communications, speeches, and storytelling. Some corners of the world haven’t necessarily moved on beyond COVID, says Anu Gupta, senior client partner in the Life Sciences practice at Korn Ferry. “We are going to move back and forth between pandemic, epidemic, and endemic.”
When attempting to frame the pandemic, experts suggest, leaders should be aware of the distinction between the human perspective and the company-performance perspective. “The human element is essentially never over,” says strategist Sharon Egilinsky, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “The impact and loss never go away.” From a corporate perspective, investors are often looking at benchmarks before and after the crisis—and may unintentionally wade into sensitive waters.
Experts advise testing out messaging with a variety of stakeholders before hitting send, and weaving in language that properly addresses this sensitive topic. “You can absolutely communicate the concepts you need to convey without stating ‘post-pandemic,’” says McDermott. He suggests more neutral phrases such as, “It’s 2023” and “We’re three years past the shutdown.” Meanwhile, others are trying another phrase, for use strictly in a business context: “post-crisis.”