A Need for Corporate Diplomats in the time of COVID-19

Corporate Diplomacy and Covid-19.


This blog post was contributed by Abby Bowman, a recent Carlos M. Gutierrez Corporate Diplomacy Fellow at Meridian who is now working with a Meridian Corporate Council member organization, AT&T. 

As I prepared for my work as the Corporate Diplomacy Fellow at Meridian, I (of course) had no idea that this same timeframe would come to be defined by the global pandemic. I spent my first few months in the historic houses across from Meridian Hill, playing a small role in Meridian’s convenings of U.S. Government officials, foreign Ambassadors, and senior private sector leaders. As in-person gatherings were slowly canceled, and whispers of work-from-home escalated into a new reality, I worried that I may not have the opportunity to take part in Meridian’s convenings again. But, as we reached two full months of quarantine, I realized that I didn’t lose but gained a new perspective on the ‘business’ of bringing people together. While crisis looms above, around and within many aspects of life, the COVID-19 pandemic may provide exceptionally fertile ground for the emergence of more corporate diplomats. Corporate diplomacy can survive amidst COVID-19 because the private sector is resilient 

Despite the more-than-obvious challenges of the time, the world has shown unprecedented adaptability and perseverance during this crisis. Meridian has been no exception; quickly stepping up to the challenge and pivoting to an online format bustling with events headlined by the same global leaders that would walk through the doors on Crescent Place. Meridian in its essence helps greatly in defining corporate diplomacy. As a place (or a virtual ‘place’) for cross-sector leaders to come together for conversations and productive dialogue, Meridian enables the private sector to adopt corporate diplomacy practices.

Corporate diplomacy is the outward turn of senior private-sector leaders toward relationship-building with stakeholders that are beyond direct shareholders. For multinational corporations, these stakeholders might be local governments or communities impacted by the presence of the company’s operations overseas. When a private corporation faces backlash from stakeholders in any variety of countries, cities or towns, it is up to the company to address the crisis and solve for the concern. In a moment in which the entire world is in crisis, the private sector has an opportunity to lead in demonstrating fortitude. 

I’m a philosopher, by training. I frequently find myself thinking at the intersection of international development, business and ethics. I reflect often on Peter Singer and his (albeit contentious) arguments on global poverty, philanthropy and a ‘duty to give.’ Historically, private sector philanthropy efforts were siloed off to Corporate Social Responsibility departments, and relationship-building efforts with U.S. and international governments happened only within a Government Affairs division. As firms have begun to focus more on the ‘triple bottom line’ of people, planet and profits, these efforts have become more ingrained as a key ethical business practice. This process is an ideal one and has furthered the commitments of corporations to building relationships with external groups. In a time of crisis, relationship-building is everything. Ambassador Stuart Holliday, Meridian’s President and CEO, wrote about the essential connection between the public and private sectors in a blog postand articulated so well that, “Successful interconnectivity between these sectors will ultimately determine whether we are successful in combatting and recovering from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.” 

As we continue to navigate a truly global crisis, it is necessary that representatives from all sectors become not only leaders but collaborators. Witold Henisz writes of corporate diplomacy as connecting external stakeholders with the mission of the business, as well as shifting internal practices to reflect and provide for the interests of these external groups. He explains that a corporate diplomat is, “… both representing the company on the outside, and representing the external stakeholders on the inside. Trying to find the win/wins. Any corporate leader committed to these principles can and should take on the role of corporate diplomat. Much of the private sector has already demonstrated its commitment to this monumental task, supporting governments and civil society through the supply of products, systems and infrastructure.

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has made traditional diplomacy (among most other aspects of life) more difficult, however, it has also provided fertile ground for innovation and adaptability. There may have been a desire for more corporate diplomats before COVID-19, but the pandemic has escalated this into a necessity. The private sector is resilient, and will eventually emerge, like everyone, from the troubles of today. But it is imperative that corporate leaders further develop the skills and processes that have been so essential during this time and implement them into long-term strategies. COVID-19 demonstrates exactly why cross-sector relationships matter; we need corporate diplomats to continue to promote these ideals long after the virus is gone.