The 2003 SARS epidemic provides a stark example of how a contagious disease can decimate a country or an entire region’s tourism industry. In the case of SARS, economists estimate that the outbreak resulted in a loss of more than 15 million visitors and $11 billion. Now the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is scaring folks across the world... so keep calm and read on!
While some of these losses are inevitable in the wake of such an outbreak, proper planning and communication can dramatically limit fallout. At a review of the SARS incident by the Association of South East Asian Nations, tourism ministers singled out poor communication and lack of coordination as two of the key problems that turned a medical concern into an economic disaster.
Carried out properly, a crisis plan below will help any smart region avoid those problems – both through careful preparation in advance of a crisis and clearly outlined steps to follow if an outbreak does happen.
Any plan needs to be divided into three sections:
PREPARATION, CRISIS STEPS, and a PRELIMINARY HOLDING STATEMENT.
PREPARATION includes a list of actions that should be taken now, to fully equip the team with the tools needed if a crisis breaks out. Once a crisis happens, there will not be time available to pull together fact sheets, lists of internal and external audiences, and get them approved by the necessary players.
CRISIS STEPS are steps that should be taken when a crisis happens. These provide structure and can serve as a checklist so important tasks are not overlooked in the inevitable confusion that surrounds a crisis.
Finally, the PRELIMINARY HOLDING STATEMENT is a basic statement that could be sent out to the media upon word of an outbreak of the Coronavirus, and updated as more facts are available.
1) Identify the Crisis Response Team– Before a crisis hits, it is necessary to identify the individuals who will be involved in responding to it. This team should include representatives from public relations staff (and or PR consultants), and the government officials in charge of public health. It must include at least one person of sufficient rank to sign off on decisions about releasing information to the public. Emergency contact information for each person should be obtained in advance (including a cell phone number and a backup person if that individual is unreachable), and team members should have access to this plan in advance of a crisis.
2) Prepare Contact List of Primary Audiences – In the event of a crisis, it may be necessary to distribute information to various audiences, including those that work in the Travel and Tourism industry. This is particularly important because reporters will go directly to a wide variety of sources to get information in a crisis. In order to facilitate this distribution of information, it is necessary to create a list of phone numbers and email addresses for these internal audiences, including: tourism office staff; major transportation companies (airlines, bus lines); major lodging companies (hotels, resorts, hostels); local travel agents; major restaurants or restaurant chains; and public relations and tourism officials in regional governments.
Obviously it will not be possible to compile a list that includes every restaurant, every hotel, etc. However, by targeting major companies and trade associations who have their own membership lists, one can compile a list that will get the job done.
3) Prepare Contact List of External Audiences – In addition to these secondary audiences, it will be necessary to exchange information with colleagues from other, external organizations. These include tourism office counterparts, neighboring regions, nations with direct flights, and the World Health Organization.
4) Prepare Contact List of the Media – One of the biggest challenges in a crisis is getting accurate information out to the public quickly, so they do not rely on rumor and inaccurate reports. One way to do this is to get accurate and reliable information into the hands of the media – and that means having a prepared list of travel reporters and international health reporters (Twitter accounts too). In compiling this information, an emphasis should be made on media outlets that operate on a quick newscycle, such as news wires, websites, cable news, daily newspapers, and weekly newsmagazines. While monthly travel magazines are a staple of travel and tourism promotion, their longer lead time makes them a secondary target for information in the wake of a crisis.
5) Write Fact Sheet – A Coronavirus outbreak is a relatively minor incident in the grand scheme of things, and does not represent a major threat to travelers. The coronavirus disease (COVID 2019) causes respiratory illness in humans. COVID-19 can spread from person to person. This usually happens through respiratory droplets - when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes, and you breathe it in. Most often, you need to be close to the person (within 6 feet) for it to spread this way. It might be possible to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it.
However, reporting of such an outbreak can easily make it seem worse than it is. While some reporters will spend the time to get their stories right, others will take shortcuts that sensationalize the news and make a small outbreak seem major or life threatening. Therefore, it is necessary to prepare a comprehensive fact sheet in advance of an outbreak. This should include:
(1) an overview of the preventative steps taken to immediately detect and quarantine any outbreak;
(2) information about how COVID-19 is mild in 80% of cases,
(3) an overview of other outbreaks, so that a local outbreak is put in context (for example, several nations have detected COVID-19. Much of this information can be obtained from the World Health Organization and similar organizations.
6) Write a Recommended Sanitation Plan for Tourism Industry Workers – As a final preventative step, the office should prepare a recommended sanitation plan for tourism industry workers, which could be instituted in the case of an outbreak. If an outbreak occurs it will be important to show visitors that the country is prepared and taking quick steps to ensure that they are safe – and the quick activation of a pre-existing plan will be an important way to achieve this goal.
1) Get the Facts – The first step in a crisis is to get the facts about what the real problem is. Where was the COVID-19 outbreak detected? (town) In what form? Are there multiple cases? Are there other, outstanding cases nearby that are waiting for word whether they test positive or not? Is the source of the outbreak clear? Of course, some of this information may not yet be available, and “getting the facts” doesn’t mean waiting until every fact is in – it just means figuring out what we know and what we don’t.
2) Centralize Communication By Convening Crisis Response Team – As first facts become available, it is necessary to convene the Crisis Response Team (in person or by conference call). The team will exchange the facts, agree on what should be communicated to the public and assign responsibility for (1) monitoring the facts, (2) alerting each audience. The team should meet regularly until after the crisis has passed.
3) Get the Information Out to All Audiences (Internal, External, and Media) – One of the most dangerous elements of a crisis is misinformation and rumor. The best antidote is getting the facts out. While there is a natural tendency to shield negative news from the public, it is far better to get the facts out in a measured way with the right context than to be stuck trying to undo false rumors and speculation. Therefore, the Crisis Response Team should get the following information out: (1) the facts about what has happened, (2) the prepared fact sheet on COVID-19 and (3) the steps that you are taking to respond. A memo with this information can be send to the internal and external audiences, and a statement can be sent to the media. Deliver the information in a calm way, not with alarm.
4) Feed the Media – Once the outbreak becomes a story, the media will look for information to report. If you feed them measured, accurate information, that is likely what they will use. If you don’t, they will find something else to report – and it can often be incorrect or overly dramatic. Therefore, communicating with the media needs to be more than a single press release at the onset of the crisis. Briefings should be delivered whenever there is new information. For example, on the second day of an outbreak, send out a release if there are no new cases of infection found. In the case of a major crisis, briefings should be delivered regularly, even if there isn’t much new information yet. Designate a calm and authoritative spokesperson to address the situation and stick with that one person. If applicable, talk with reporters about how the outbreak is having a smaller impact because of the preventative steps taken. Find positive visuals, like a hotel that is observing sanitation requirements and is unfazed by the crisis. If possible, find some travelers who know the facts and are not worried about the outbreak, and send international reporters to them to talk about how safe the country is to travel in.
5) Don’t Forget You Have an Office to Run – It is easy to be distracted by a crisis and let other operations grind to a halt, but this can often cost your economy more than the crisis itself. As a Crisis Response Team is functioning and meeting regularly and a spokesperson is working with the media to shape the story, make sure that the rest of your operations are proceeding as normal. If the individuals involved in the crisis are spending all of their time on it, reassign their normal workload to other employees until the crisis is over.
6) Keep Track of What Goes Right and Wrong – Every crisis is an opportunity – and one of the opportunities is the chance to identify logistical problems and eliminate them prior to future crises. As the crisis finishes, convene a final meeting of the CRT and write a brief report about the difficulties faced throughout the process. Once these are identified, they can be fixed before another crisis hits.