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Published on Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Communication in a crisis: fighting fear with facts

Debbie Hindle, chief executive of travel at Four Communications, shares her seven-step plan for good communication amid coronavirus concerns

In any crisis there comes a point where the need to manage communication around an issue can be almost as overwhelming as managing the issue itself.

Every travel business and tourist board is currently facing a fast-moving situation where an unknown disease, from an unknown source, is spreading in new locations around the world. Those are almost exactly the words I wrote in 2003 during SARS and, even though we now face a much more intense social media world, the communications skills we need are still the same.

So what should we be all be saying?

1. Always be factual, fast and supportive

Be absolutely up front and factual about COVID-19 with your customers. Make it very clear to them you understand the issue and direct them to a place where they can obtain the latest health advice and facts. Have a prominent section on your website and pinned messages on your social channels with a summary linking to the latest government health advice. If you're a UK based business that should could include and as well as ABTA's dedicated coronavirus updates

Update the date of your statements regularly; so that it's clear to your customers you are also on top of the fast-changing situation.

We work for the Singapore Tourism Board and I'd highly recommend looking at its industry website  and consumer sites for examples of regularly updated industry and consumer information.

2. Clarify the facts if customers are confused

If there is coverage in the news which is causing your customers' concern, or they've misunderstood what it means then make sure you give the right information.

Announcements about flights being cancelled can sound bad in a sound-bite news headline. As the travel experts you can put that in context - update your customers on the facts eg three out of 36 daily flights to a destination are being cancelled.  Ask your airline partners to make the information clearer on their own websites and in messaging.

3. Correcting media reporting

If the media says something that is factually inaccurate about your business, you can write to them asking them to correct it. This can be done by checking the Editor's code and writing to the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Only complain if the media has published facts incorrectly. Don't waste your time complaining about things you don't like.

4. Work together and be supportive

COVID-19 is everyone's issue. So work together to share the facts - ABTA, industry bodies, media, even local chambers of commerce can all take or share your information. Many destinations are setting up COVID-19 taskforces to share information and best practice fast. If you specialise in one destination see if you can connect to those task forces as well.

5. Listen and talk to customers where they are concerned

You may find customers are discussing concerns most in Facebook or Trip Advisor rather than coming to your website. Make sure you're listening to those concerns and addressing them wherever the customers are. That means putting in place a strong social listening programme and it can also help you to understand what questions and concerns need addressing first in your wider communications.

Ensure your social channels also reflect your own advice. If you're telling customers to avoid large gatherings in a destination then show images of people experiencing travel in smaller indoor settings. Show or share current images of destinations to illustrate the reality of people going about their daily lives, or link to webcams so customers can see the reality in a destination now.

6. Talk personally

Our behaviour change specialists at Four Communications talk about the power of "tailoring", the fact that personal messages can be far more powerful than generic messages in encouraging behaviour change. So rather just giving anonymous company statements also consider messages from the most senior person in your business or organisation. Can they write personal letters to people about to travel, or write an opinion column in the local newspaper.

7. Plan your recovery campaign now

It's important, even in the middle of a crisis, to plan your recovery campaign now so as soon as the issue begins to clear you're ready to help respond to the pent-up demand from people who've deferred, or postponed their bookings.

Of course in all communications it goes without saying don't overpromise, or say things are normal when they aren't. Don't, for example, do what one group of shops did and say visitors should come to a destination because the streets are empty.

COVID-19 will be difficult, but the world is working to find solutions. Together we will come through this and learn new lessons for the future.

Until then be factual, fast and supportive and you will be known as an open, transparent and trusted organisation which customers and partners can rely on now and in the future.

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