M&E Connections

M&E Journal: Be the Buffalo

By Timothy Sheehy –

I live on the Great Plains. Home to horizons that go on forever, and blue skies that go even farther. Vast areas of land and air that impress you with your ultimate smallness. Home to blizzards that will literally rip the breath from your lungs.

Blizzards. Alien, dystopian worlds that blur the boundaries between the real and imagined, that make fools of the senses that usually allow you to distinguish between the solid and ethereal. Creatures large and small fear the blizzard. They run from it. Cower. Shelter. Pray. Not the buffalo.

The buffalo turn, and face into the wind. And then run into it. Seemingly against all natural instinct. It’s almost as if they were daring the blizzard to best them. Taking on the absolute worst that Mother Nature can throw at them and then daring her to do more.

So how to make sense of something like this? The buffalo, by running into the storm, will also be the first ones out of it. If they ran from the storm, the blizzard would catch up with them. Being able to see the end of the storm increases their odds of survival.

If anything is flying along in the wind and heading toward them, they have a chance to avoid it, which they wouldn’t have if they didn’t see it coming. Contrast that with cows. How many times have you seen the images and read the stories of cattle caught in blizzards and not surviving? They run from the wind, maximizing their exposure and reducing their chances of making it through alive.

It’s an apt metaphor for what we’re facing today. A global blizzard of unprecedented proportions. The winds are screaming. The noise is terrifying. And yet those who march forward will be the first to see the sun break through.

It’s important to remember that this too shall pass. This pandemic will come to an end. As dystopian and apocalyptic as the headlines are today, there will come a day when the tsunami of bad news is replaced by stories of hope, recovery, rebound, growth and renewal.

Business as usual is already unusual.

This isn’t to say things will be the same. Business as usual won’t be usual. It will be unusual. The new normal won’t feel normal. The months and years to come will be full of unforeseen and uncomfortable adjustments. Some changes will be welcome, while some will be wrenching. But there will be change … plenty of it. And it won’t stop.

Much as the birth of the internet led to profound adjustments — not just in the way we work and communicate, but in the way we actually think about working and communicating — the impact of COVID-19 will be the same. It will require new mindsets as the world gets accustomed to new ways of thinking about how we interact, transact business, travel, socialize and make things happen.

We have already started that process. We were forced to. In the space of a couple of weeks, the whole planet was forced to make lightning-fast adjustments. If we didn’t do something very different and do it quickly, we stood a better-than-even chance of not getting out alive. That got our attention.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has “physiological” as its base for a reason: survival comes first. If we’re not physiologically viable nothing else matters. Above all, we need to survive. When faced with an existential crisis, the human reaction is always going to ensure survival. And humanity has kicked it into gear.

The global system we took for granted got slammed to the mat by a body blow. We retooled everything. We figured it out. Fast.

Remote. Virtual. Digital. Online collaboration.

And somehow, in a matter of days, the wheels of commerce started to turn again in many industries. Knowledge workers, those who deal with information instead of things, figured out how to connect and collaborate with colleagues and clients. Students and teachers got up and running again with video conferencing. Clients and companies made non-physical meetings take place. Deals got done. Presentations were made.

Adaptability on display

The singular quality that makes us the dominant species on Earth is adaptation. We’ve never been the strongest, the fastest, the highest fliers, the best swimmers or the best climbers. Our ability to adapt — and the flexibility and creativity that surrounds adaptability — enables us to rapidly adjust to even catastrophic conditions. That quality has been on global display now for months, and will be the hallmark of our recovery in the months and years to come.

What has been and will continue to be remarkable about this particular chapter in human history, is how widely COVID-19 has been shared. Other recent catastrophes — with perhaps the exception of global climate change — have been more isolated and regional in nature. Wars, famine, floods, fires, earthquakes, revolutions, eruptions, all have affected some part of the population, but not all of the population. This is different.

COVID-19 has been called an “equal opportunity virus” for good reason. Everyone from Tom Hanks and Prince Charles to day laborers and the homeless have tested positive. Everyone, everywhere has had to respond.

For those of us in media and entertainment, it’s presented both great challenge and great opportunity. Streamers, gaming companies, VOD distributors and their brethren have all benefited enormously from the stay-at-home mandate as consumers have turned to entertainment that doesn’t require crowds and contact.

But the story has been very different for other segments of the industry. Productions worldwide have been shut down. Parks and resorts have closed. Cruise ships are docked. Sports teams have suspended or canceled seasons. Cinemas are closed. Broadway is dark. Concerts and artist tours have been canceled. Awards shows are on hold. The list goes on. Then there’s the massive impact on advertiser-driven media like TV, which is seeing billions of dollars in losses as media buys are dropped, sports and music events don’t occur and shows aren’t produced.

In the middle of it all: millions of people whose livelihoods and careers depend on the industry. Performers, writers, producers, technical professionals, production teams, technology enterprises, theater and cinema employees, resort workers—all have been profoundly impacted, and face an uncertain future.

A week etched in history

The week of March 16, 2020 is already etched into history. It’s when the world began shutting down in earnest. Trips were canceled, meetings moved from conference rooms to Zoom.

For many media and entertainment companies, crisis response teams sprang into action. Business continuity plans were prioritized and resourced. Daily global conference calls were organized. Teams were quickly equipped to work securely and efficiently from home.

But for countless millions, there’s been another reality: The shock that comes from going from full speed to a dead stop. Waiters, bartenders, retail clerks, airline employees, hair stylists, cab drivers, small business owners and countless others who suddenly had their lives turned upside down and steady paychecks dry up overnight all have felt this shock.
For those people, the pandemic shock has been far more severe and frightening. Massive government assistance programs will hopefully blunt some impacts, but for many it could be years before they’ll climb out of the hole dug by the pandemic.

Our better selves

And yet, in the face of all this adversity, we’ve seen even the hardest hit families come together to help each other and others.

Tough times can bring out the best or the worst in people. With few exceptions, I’ve seen the social fabric stay largely intact. A mentality of “we’re in this together” has been prevalent. Suddenly, we truly have common cause with everyone else in the world.

Facing their worst fears from an unseen enemy, the frontline healthcare workers, police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, grocery store clerks, keep at it. Every day. Everyday people are making masks. Delivering food and medications to elderly people who can’t get out. Windowing visits for those marooned in nursing homes or care facilities. Message boards and forums that have sprung up in communities worldwide to connect people who want to help with those who need it.

The pandemic has inspired millions to put away petty squabbles and prejudices and look for ways to help friends and strangers alike.

What’s next?

There will be adjustments required that we see coming. And many that we won’t. Some will be welcome. Others will be difficult to get accustomed to.

A contraction of the office real estate market is almost inevitable. It’s hard to imagine companies that have now learned to function effectively without people driving into the office are going to go back to people sitting in expensive commercial real estate.

By the same token, millions of people who got behind the wheel or slogged back and forth to work on trains, buses and subways every day are likely to find relief from the endless commutes that robbed them of so many hours of their lives.

Of course, people will still go into offices when it makes sense. In-person meetings will still take place. But it’s certain that before they do, the question will be asked: “Are we sure we can’t handle this with a video conference?”

Every industry will learn to adjust in its own way. And the words of a 96-yearold grandmother I recently heard should give us all hope: “I’ve been through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the ‘60s, the oil crisis, financial crashes, 9/11. And we always survived,” she said. “In fact, we more than survived. We bounced back and built bigger, stronger and smarter than ever. What makes you think it will be any different this time?”

She’s right.

She is the buffalo.

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