Past is Prologue: Lessons Learned from 2008

Currently, the U.S. has 140,904 cases of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. There are 32 states with stay at home orders. Last week, unemployment filings topped three million, the largest number recorded in history. Everyone is racing to cushion the economic fallout and stem the bleeding. The Federal Reserve has pulled nearly every lever available to it, Congress is moving on to its fourth, and likely not last, stimulus measure, and private sector companies have stepped up in a manner reminiscent of war times.

While in many ways what we are facing is completely unprecedented, and our public health response and pandemic preparedness planning will fundamentally change forever, there are many components of what’s happening that are parallel to the 2008 financial crisis. For companies that are preparing to partake in much needed stimulus money, here are three lessons on optics to remember from 2008. These are not financial or business lessons but, rather, reminders on perception and politics.  

1. Nuance is easily lost when the figures are trillions with a “t.” As a former Treasury spokesperson under Secretary Geithner, I can attest to the countless stories and news cycles that were based on the headline, and not the facts. It’s easy to play politics with a caricature, with nuance and nitty gritty pieces of policy and regulation falling by the wayside. We’re already seeing this creep into reporting, with CEOs being accused of selling stock to profit off COVID-19, when in reality, the plans to sell said stock were put in place, and in writing, well before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic. For companies that take stimulus money, it would behoove them to spend time charting out the implications and political perceptions that will create click-bait. This type of scenario planning should be plotted out years in advance. To some extent, there will always be political hits that are taken, but the 2008 financial crisis showcased the pitfalls of easily preventable mistakes.

2. Information moves even faster now. In 2008, Twitter had one million users. Today, there are nearly 60 million. The 2008 crisis was before fake news, Russian bots, and dubious Facebook groups. So take lesson number 1, and multiply by 1,000. In many ways, this presents an opportunity. We’re already seeing private sector companies and foundations share news, solutions, and ideas for how to help their employees and the country weather this storm via social media.  Conversely, this also means that misinformation travels faster. To that end, content is key. Communicate your message, your perspective, and your value add to society directly, cleanly, and often. While social media has displaced local news in many ways, it has also cut out the middleman. Craft your story, show the human side of it, and share your message broadly. People are hungry for good news and someone to root for – you should make sure it’s you. 

3. Alphabet soup is stewing, so prepare accordingly. The 2008 financial crisis yielded a set of new agencies. FSOCSIGTARPCFPB. At this time, the $500 billion in assistance for businesses will be administered by the Treasury Department, with oversight from a yet to be formed Inspector General. For all companies who take funds, this means preparing for audits, Congressional hearings, and new reporting requirements. But the official requirements, as we’ve seen, are only part of that calculus, with traditional media and social media further complicating these debates. For those who prepare and plan on these asks from the beginning, oversight should be a welcome chance to showcase good governance of funds and value add to communities. 

The parallels to the financial crisis of 2008 aren’t exact. Lives will be lost, and many businesses and families are facing disruption on a scale never before seen, for reasons that are beyond any control. But there are still lessons to be learned and planning to be done – and serious pitfalls that can be avoided with a thoughtful, holistic approach.