SINCE news of the coronavirus broke out early this year, the media has been in overdrive keeping up with news of outbreaks, lockdowns, and lives forever changed in what the World Health Organization recently termed as a “pandemic.”
Seeing how the virus story has become a PR story, we earlier came up with two columns on this. The first, Communications in the Age of Coronavirus by the undersigned, talked about how PR pros will need to provide clarity about what is a rapidly evolving situation. As early as its publication on February 10, 2020, it showed how iconic global brands were letting the public know about their safety precautions, which in a sense is PR.
The following week, my colleague Karen Villanueva, who has worked in the health industry for many years, reiterated the importance of Communicating in the Midst of a Health Emergency: Lessons Being Learned from the Covid-19 Crisis. She emphasized the importance of communicating with clarity, authority, and empathy in the midst of misinformation; and offered some observations and suggestions from the health and PR point of view.
Today, as the situation unfolds, and with governments all over the world doing their best to keep their people healthy and protected, we have come to realize how the outbreak is impacting business—dramatic stock market drops, large-scale postponements or travel cancellations.
In the article “Five Ways PR Pros Can Deal with the Coronavirus Fallout,” on prnewsonline.com, Nicole Schuman says that “organizations need to assess what’s most important to communicate to a concerned public.”
She adds that “whatever the type of brand, reacting and preparing for a coronavirus outbreaks should follow the rules of a typical PR crisis. Looking at crisis strategy can help brands get a headstart on how to communicate with their audiences.”
Since the travel industry has been one of those most affected by the crisis, we will discuss how some brands have dealt with it, and at the same time highlight some of the best practices airlines, travel agencies, and cruise ships have shown so far.
Tips for travel communicators
In Schuman’s article, Sara Joseph, SVP of lifestyle and hospitality at Berlin Rosen advises companies to treat outbreaks similarly as other unexpected crises.
Joseph, who has worked with travel clients during outbreaks of Zika and SARS, adds that it is important “to ensure that updated travel information is readily available. It’s important for people to understand, in real-time, what health organizations are advising, and how this affects a company’s travel policies.”
And if you are looking to distribute information, Schuman stresses that we should “make it easy for people to find.” The best place to post urgent policy news is “on the homepage of your web site, with a link to more information. In addition, you should e-mail constituents.”
When communicating, “use bold colors. Make sure your announcement is at the top, or in a central location, where consumers do not have to scroll far down the page. If information is too hard to find, it won’t be found. Put yourself in the shoes of a consumer who may not see the web site everyday as you do.”
With the coronavirus whirling the travel industry in a tailspin, companies are stepping forward to embrace the consumer and communicate decisions made in their best interests.
Schuman notes that, “to help travelers, airlines and cruise companies are introducing temporary beneficial cancellation policies. Jetblue is waiving change and cancellation fees on new flights booked between February 27 and Mach 11; cancellations will result in a credit.”
On the other hand, “Norwegian Cruise Lines is extending the time passengers can make final payments for its June and July sailings, as well as allowing them to change to another cruise time on or before June 30. Crystal Cruises is offering sick travelers the opportunity to cancel their cruise within the next seven days in exchange for a 100-percent refund or future credit of 125 percent.”
More recently airlines have stepped up, reaching out to their stakeholders, including mileage holders, in a very personal way. Turkish Airlines Miles and Smiles members, for example, received a personally addressed letter from its Chairman of the Board and the Executive Committee M. llker Ayci, saying “We Care About You.” The letter, among other things, details how the aircraft undergoes a thorough cleaning process; and how during flights, the air in the cabin is constantly refreshed, “completely changed 15 to 30 times per hour.”
Qatar Airways and Emirates have, likewise, sent our similar letters to their stakeholders, and have included Covid -19 Updates in their web sites. Qatar Airways updates has information on flight alerts, service alternations, and entry to Qatar; while Emirates travel updates include a news flash, flight suspension information, security alerts, and operational changes. Such gestures generate a lot of goodwill for the airlines during these difficult times.
Hotels are similarly taking that extra mile to reach out to their stakeholders. Hilton President & CEO Chris Nassetta wrote a letter to Hilton Honors members saying he “wanted to reach out to you personally about what we are doing here at Hilton to support you and your travel plans.”
He added that the company is doing everything to ensure their travel safety and provide maximum flexibility, including maintaining the highest standards of safety and hygiene, offering flexible travel options, and pausing the expiration of all points scheduled to expire between now and May 31, 2020.
Marriot International President and CEO Arne Sorenson, on the other hand, shared how “our hearts and thoughts go out to the people who have been affected by this unprecedented event,” expressing appreciation for “health-care workers, local communities, and governments around the world who are on the frontline working to contain this virus.”
He also gave an update on what they are doing for the safety and well-being of their guests. These include hygiene and health measures, flexibility in reservations, and close coordination with the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local health agencies for the latest developments related to Covid-19.
All these steps show extra care for keeping passengers and guests healthy, as well as working with the latest facts around the crisis. And that is good PR.
PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the United Kingdom-based International Public Relations Association (Ipra), the world’s premier association for senior professionals around the world. Millie F. Dizon, the senior vice president for Marketing and Communications of SM, is the former local chairman.
We are devoting a special column each month to answer the reader’s questions about public relations. Please send your comments and questions to [email protected]