Keeping It Real: Communications in a Time of COVID
Imagine being the owner of a successful strategic communications company, losing half your clients due to the economic pressure of the coronavirus pandemic, and then falling ill with said virus along with most of your family.
That’s what happened to Bettina Nava, co-founder of OH Strategic Communications in Phoenix, last month. Nava, her physician husband, and two of their three children came down with COVID-19. While her youngest daughter, 13, escaped contracting the virus and most members of the family experienced just flulike symptoms, Nava’s husband wasn’t so lucky. “My husband gave us a very good scare,” says Nava. “He lost 11 pounds in 10 days, and we thought that hospitalization was going to be a step in the process of trying to heal.”
The pandemic taught the mother of three firsthand just how disruptive this virus can be, both personally and professionally. It also taught her important lessons on how to respond, pivot, and reorient during a crisis. “My colleagues took care of everything; they just stepped up,” she says. “There were whole days where I just was not in a position to deal, and there was not even a hesitation.”
Nava notes that before being personally struck down by coronavirus, her firm had established a number of new ways of working as a direct result of changing business needs in the pandemic. The first was adjusting to the fact that their full book of clients took a huge hit. “We had to pivot to pitching again and really finding those good clients that were now a fit under the new circumstances.”
During this “very frightening” time, Nava and her business partner were extremely cognizant of the need to adapt, to ensure that their business and employees didn’t suffer significant disruption, unlike some of their former clients, some of whom went bankrupt and many of whom were forced to downsize. They met the moment by pitching for and accepting client briefs centered around strategic crisis management, as organizations panicked about how best to manage staffing and the pandemic.
“We felt that that was a space where we could slip in and help people figure out what to do during this pandemic, what to do during this crisis,” she says. “We've always been in crisis communications, but we found that, wow, this is a niche for us. We know how to do this during a difficult time.”
Having worked for the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for many years, including on his 2008 presidential campaign, Nava is adept at tactical strategic communications and community outreach. It’s her sense of community that was touched during her own experience with coronavirus.
Nava says that one positive has come out of the pandemic and her own family’s personal experience with the virus is a more informal familiarity with clients. “When we're on calls with people and looking at their faces, their dog might jump in the photo, their child might come running by with a diaper on — you know, so things that we may not have been talking about in the boardroom before,” says Nava. “I'm getting to know people's children, I'm getting to know their pets.”
Advocating with Purpose
In many ways, that humanity has always been core to Nava’s business practice. She says that a major reason why she started her business was to help underserved and marginalized people. Having been a high-level political strategist and communications specialist for over two decades, Nava says she came to a point where she could no longer work on projects that didn’t align with her purpose.
“There have been clients in my past where I wondered, ‘Is there really a good community impact that's going to come from that?’ There were some questionable ones,” she recalls. “By owning my own company, I could say ‘yes,’ and go out and attract clients that I believe have a long-term positive impact on the things that I care about.”
One of the things Nava points to is asserting the rights of the LGBT community, which is still not legally protected by nondiscrimination laws in Arizona.
“I think it is unconscionable,” says Nava. “I don't think it's a Republican issue. I don't think it's a Democrat issue. It drives me absolutely insane. And I'm embarrassed.”
Another example that Nava says is important to her is gun safety. Working with her client Everytown, Nava conducts research, collates data, and drafts policy proposals on how to protect women and children from gun violence. This includes proposals to ensure extensive background checks are undertaken, as well as temporarily revoking gun licenses of men with violent histories in the domestic space. “We have women in Arizona — an inordinately high number are dying from gun violence during an altercation with their partner,” she says. “We just want to be reasonable about sensible approaches that will ultimately protect people.”
As the owner of her own business, Nava gained much desired autonomy, but she says she also had to overcome some significant mental stumbling blocks. “At some point in my life, I had to realize that I wasn't really competing against others. I was just competing against myself.” Furthermore, she says, “I think another thing that's helped in my business is not taking things so personally — really looking at the goals and objectives in front.”
In the current moment, as the U.S. is undergoing a reckoning on social justice, Nava says that she is excited to see so many women taking agency and standing up for themselves. “I am so excited how empowered women are, that they are sharing their voice, finding their voice, taking back their voice,” she says. “Oh, my God, is the world going to be a better place with this happening!”
Nava says it took her a long time to overcome the fear of being rejected and ridiculed in the boardroom, but came to realize that she had as much right as anyone to take a seat at the table, as do all women in the workplace. “We just need to be bold and say, you know, I'm going to surround myself with smart people,” she says. “I'm going to do my homework. And if there's a little building while flying, that's okay.”
“What I'm working on is paramount,” Nava adds. “It's important, and I'm not going to let those barriers or perceived barriers get in the way. I am going to stop the meeting and say, wait a minute, I have something to say. And have the confidence to say it.”