COVID-19 illuminates the essential marriage of the private and public sectors

Meridian accelerates collaboration between the government and business sectors around the world.


About halfway through a virtual townhall meeting Meridian convened last week about Global Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Brittany Masalosalo, 3M’s Head of International Government Affairs, made a startling statement.

Despite her company’s work to ramp up emergency production lines to supply personal protective equipment so badly needed by doctors and nurses during the coronavirus pandemic, government tendencies to hoard supplies, restrict travel and clamp down on trade were inhibiting 3M’s best-laid plans to step up in a crisis.

“There are millions of masks that could be being put to use right now but, rather, they’re sitting in warehouses,” Masalosalo said in exasperation. “Being able to contain the outbreak in Italy is to the advantage of the entire world. Being able to contain it in Spain or South Korea or the United States is to the advantage of the entire world.”

A U.S. congressman and two diplomats who heard about the comment immediately asked Meridian for Masalosalo’s contact information to help resolve the problem.

The private and public sector are in an essential marriage that’s being tested now more than ever. As Bill Gates said during a CNN Town Hall last week: “Companies aren’t in a position to determine the parameters of COVID-19 testing. That’s up to government. … Government has to design the system and the private sector will step up; clarity has to come from the federal government first.”

Anticipating situations such as this, Meridian has made the connectivity between government, business and diplomacy part of its core mission to strengthen engagement between the United States and the world since its founding 60 years ago.

While not a first responder to a crisis, Meridian provides the preventative action and supports the rapid response to them. We facilitate dialogue across borders, industries and sectors to ensure sustained cooperation between the private and public sector before, throughout and after challenges arise.

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.

Through the Meridian Corporate Council and the Meridian Corporate Diplomacy Professional Development Program, we lay the foundation for these relationships and fundamental understanding of one another’s needs.

Our Corporate Council is comprised of leaders from 60 companies – from Google to United Airlines to Mastercard – who recognize the value of global engagement. The Council provides a platform for the exchange of dialogue and perspectives on key global issues and networking among diplomatic, government and corporate leaders.

In little more than the past month, we’ve hosted Nicholas Snyder, Asia advisor to Vice President Mike Pence on a visit to Meridian Hill, we led a corporate delegation to India in advance of President Trump’s official state visit, and we had the Deputy General of WTO brief the Corporate Council on digital trade and ways to be trade-ready in 2020.

However, some topics we expected to focus on in 2020, such as Brexit and Chinese tariffs, have now turned to COVID-19 related discussions. We’re convening programs on the financial sector’s response to an economic collapse not seen since the Great Depression as well as the private sector’s corporate social responsibility to work with governments in keeping critical infrastructure workers on the front line responding to this pandemic.

Meridian also partners with Fortune 500 companies such as 3M, AFLAC and Chevron on our Corporate Diplomacy Professional Development Program, which equips their executives with diplomatic skills, cross-cultural awareness and deeper understanding of the geopolitical dynamics shaping today’s business environments. Instructors include former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and former Ambassador Glyn Davies, whose expertise informed a specific program on how globalization is disrupting alliances, markets and institutions.

Brad Knox, vice president and counselor for federal affairs at Aflac, said after attending a training program with his team: “There is no other place in D.C. that is tied to the State Department and has this rich history of educating diplomats from around the world on how to deal with incredibly complex situations with incredibly complex people and get peaceful results. That’s what Meridian’s spotlight is; that is your sweet spot.”

Amid a pandemic, balancing national interests gets complicated when the need to look beyond borders to prevent further spread of the virus increases daily. The world is facing an incredibly complex time and the private sector response is essential for combatting a borderless COVID-19. Corporate leaders who know how to think and act like diplomats understand that the private sector must work with governments around the world to lift barriers to supply areas of highest need.

Without government’s ability to adapt regulations and facilitate approvals for suspending stockpiling of critical medical equipment, as 3M’s Brittany Masalosalo pointed out, it will be very difficult to coordinate the necessary response to end this global pandemic.

The linkage in the global government-to-business relationship has been highlighted by the coronavirus’s effect on assembly plants, supply chains, customer service and consumer spending.

A ripple starting near the heart of China’s massive manufacturing plants has built to a tidal wave overwhelming Wall Street, Italy’s important tourist trade and Hong Kong’s banking crossroads.

Try as governments may, they will not succeed in overcoming COVID-19 if they don’t support businesses or broader economic recovery. Examples include financial interventions by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the U.S. Congress, the European Central Bank and pro-business organizations elsewhere in the world.

This reality shows the importance of Meridian’s role in creating linkages and accelerating collaboration between the government and business sectors around the world – and how this public-private partnership is more existential now than ever.


Ambassador Stuart Holliday is President and CEO of Meridian International Center, a leading non-partisan, nonprofit diplomacy center that strengthens engagement between the United States and the world through global leadership, culture and collaboration to solve shared global challenges.