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April 28, 2020

Taking the Lead Amid COVID-19

Tony Treadway

Like every small business owner, I woke up one morning in March and realized that my world had changed. Even worse, the COVID virus threatened the future of a 28-year old business’ 30+ employees.

The helplessness of someone whose heart and soul has been in their business was overwhelming. I smelled panic in the air from friends, employees and myself. It was ugly, so I had to do something. The answer was kindness.

I rallied my wife and executive creative director with an idea of celebrating COVID warriors who in the face of a deadly virus was saving lives even at their own risk. Once that kernel was shared with a quickly assembled creative team, a bit of brilliance unfolded.

The hometown of Creative Energy is known as the Tri-Cities. Three small Northeast Tennessee cities and a surrounding market of roughly 500,000 people. Thus, when our creative team offered up TRI Kindness as the message, I knew we had a solution.

Within 10 days our cadre of designers, videographers, copywriters and social media stars had polished a rough idea into a gem. At its core was TRIKindness.org. A central repository of ideas on how consumers could trade panic and frustration into…acts of kindness. By showing appreciation to first responders or helping restaurants and small businesses survive. Even down to how to explain the coronavirus to a two-year-old and Pandora soundtracks for cleaning one’s own house or learning how yoga could be a de-stress a person’s own emotion.

We shared the campaign with local media outlets. They were instantly sold on the public service campaign. In fact, they were transfixed by the message.

Within a day of the campaign’s launch, my cell phone rings. It’s a former president of the local chamber of commerce whose mantra before the COVID crisis was to no longer view our region as just the Tri-Cities, but the greater region encompassing Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. “You’ve got something there with TRI Kindness. I need your help with my own idea. Can you help?” was his plea.

Within a few hours I’m on a Zoom teleconference call with a dozen regional economic development and chamber leaders. I saw and heard the same feelings of helplessness that I had experienced and then the idea. While Federal small business loans and the Payroll Protection Plan was being launched, we knew that hundreds of small regional businesses, and their employees, would fall through the cracks of a big government bailout. What if, we doubled down on kindness by creating a fundraising effort to solicit and award grants to deserving businesses who apply?

By the next call the Zoom conference had 20 local leaders in the line, including two competing agencies, station managers of local TV stations, accountants, bankers and a news anchorman. We divvied up the work with the heavy lift on the accountants for creating a trust fund for the donations, the build out of a website by one competitor and video support and commercials from the other. Creative Energy’s role was for cranking out another integrated marketing campaign and launching the campaign within 16 days from inception to launch.

At 10 am on April 17th we rolled out the Local Business Recovery Fund Drive with a unique Zoom news conference to allow for social distancing. A first virtual news conference for our team, we uncovered one of its strengths when reporters are also sheltered in place. We included three local business owners who are severely impacted to tell their stories in their own environment. Adding an emotion edge to the cause that would have been lost had they stood at a typical podium.

Portions of the event were carried live on one TV station and streamed live on social by both major network stations flawlessly. TV, radio, newspaper and social elements were timed to hit by the end of the news conference, and we are now in the hunt for money during what many say are the toughest of times.

Trying a little kindness as done me good. It’s added purpose to the lives of my employees who, once again, nailed significant campaigns in just a few days. We’ve donated our hearts and souls to two causes that connects our spirits to something other than helplessness. The effort also did me good by experiencing leadership with many across a 100-mile long region who worked as a team – even with competitors for the common good of all during this horrible time of panic and need.

I’ve become friends (although virtually) with scores of people I never knew and now treasure. The fundraising effort has created a platform for all communities to unite as a region. TRI Kindness and the Local Business Recovery Fund campaigns where crafted by many in moments that we all are proud to call our own. Two shining moments in the history of our small business. We look forward too many more. 

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