Protecting your medical travel brand from COVID-19

In any crisis, communication is important.  Now COVID-19 has plunged the global travel and medical tourism markets into a deep freeze, it has been easy to see who is responding correctly and who is getting it wrong says Irving Stackpole, from healthcare consultancy, Stackpole & Associates.

Those who do a good job at this time will strengthen their brands and create greater loyalty.

The best behavioral research about communications in a crisis points out that individuals want specific directions: who should do what, how and when. And within organisations, clarity and transparency of systems as well as messages are all needed to avoid unnecessary damage. Resiliency, both personal and organisational, is being created or destroyed by what we do now.

No one has encountered anything like the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the resulting COVID-19 healthcare crisis. The need for effective crisis communications has never been greater.

In this once-in-a-lifetime situation, it is worth reviewing the principles of effective crisis communications. These tried and true rules apply for internal and external communications:

Rule #1: You must say something. 

In a crisis, silence is just not an option. The absence of communication and information creates a vacuum into which moves speculation, rumours and misinformation. Correcting this misinformation is more time-consuming and you may never correct all the misunderstandings which could have been prevented with authentic information from you from the outset.

This principle applies to destinations (destination management / marketing organisations, travel and tourism agencies, tourism boards, etc.) as well as health providers (wellness, dental, hospitals and other clinics).

Your audiences – customers, consumers, and intermediaries – should find relevant information about the pandemic through you and your organisation. For example, put helpful resources from legitimate authorities (e.g. the World Health Organization) on your website that explain what is happening, provide useful links, and inspirational stories about how people are coping. This type of authoritative and helpful information creates positive relationships between you, your brand, and your audiences.

Information and links to authoritative resources are “passive”; that is, they would be accessed only by people who visit your website. A more “active” approach is to push messages to your audiences through emails and social media channels.

These messages should be useful to your audiences and reflect the personality of your brand. For example, a hospital or clinic could post helpful tips and supportive messages about their staff (“healthcare heroes”). For a wellness spa, the messages can be about healthy living during periods of physical distancing and isolation – e.g. diet, relaxation, exercise etc. For a destination, messages could focus on the unique appearance of familiar tourist spots during this time of physical distancing – busy places that are quiet, like this video about Lisbon.

Rule #2: Leaders must lead.

Visibility is a critical characteristic of leadership and in a crisis. Leadership means being out front and available for both internal and external audiences.

Visibility and leadership in a time of physical distancing and social isolation is principally accomplished through digital channels – i.e. your website, social media and emails. If these channels have been neglected, this is exactly the time when you should be investing the time and energy to build them up, restore them or strengthen them.

One of the permanent changes which will result from this crisis is the wholesale migration of many types of transactions and exchanges to digital channels. So take a leadership role in these digital channels, to maintain and protect your position and your brand with your audiences.

Leadership also implies authority; people may be looking to you and your organisation for facts and reliable information. This is not the time for opinion or speculation, but for the best available facts and data. Even if these facts portray a negative situation, the more reliable you are now determines the respect and trust your brand will enjoy in the future.

Rule #3: Preparation. 

While it is true that this crisis has been going on for several months already, it is never too late to prepare for the next one. For example:

  • Do the staff know whom to contact, and how to reach organisational leadership when something unexpected happens?
  • Are the contact details for police, fire and other emergency services easily accessed by everyone?
  • Do your staff know how to handle enquiries from the media – i.e. what to say, how to respond to questions, and what to do next?
  • Do you have an internal communications plan for communicating effectively and promptly with your staff, your supervisors, the Board of Directors and / or investors?

Rule #4: Say something helpful; but don’t sell. 

Nothing could be more damaging to your brand, than for external audiences to receive sales-oriented messages at this time.

When many are worried about the safety of day-to-day activities, this is not the time to encourage consumers to plan trips to your destination, a massage at your retreat, or elective surgery at your hospital.

It is enough to remind them about your brand through messages which are helpful or inspiring. Also, purely promotional messages at this time may not sit well with your staff if they are worried about their own wellbeing of financial security.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste

Many travel destinations and healthcare providers are wondering, “When will business return?”, a better question to ask is, “What should I do now?”

Effective crisis communication deepens customer engagement, improves your brand, and protects your staff relationships. Ensure that these benefits are in place for when it is time to get back to work.

This time of distancing and isolation is an extraordinary opportunity to reach out to your audiences about your brand using social media. With so many people in isolation, Internet usage is extremely high. Using social media to communicate is timely, so the right messages can be very effective at this time.

Remember, the purpose in your communications during this crisis is not to move your customers to action, but to reinforce the very essence of your brand.

Managing the media in a crisis

During this time, destinations and medical and wellness providers can be proactively engaged with the media. Newspapers, television, radio, and other media are working hard to cover this story as it continues to unfold. This is your opportunity to help them!

How do you manage these media contacts most effectively?

When you are approached by any media representative, the first principle is to prepare. When possible, ask for interview questions or talking points in advance. Do not speak or write spontaneously, or “off-the-cuff.” Prepare your remarks with a statement about your vision, mission, or values, describe the situation, or to the question, and then repeat your vision, mission, or values. This is called the “sandwich”, and if you listen to any trained politician or business leader, you will hear this formula repeated constantly.

Second, never be bullied or pushed into answering a question or responding immediately. Some reporters and editors learned this technique, and too often, those being interviewed say something they later regret. Politely but firmly explain that you are not able to respond right away, but that you will respond in a timely fashion. Confirm their contact details and make a scheduled appointment to revisit the questions. In the extraordinary situation where you must make a statement, use the “sandwich” with a simple statement in the middle about being unable to comment at this time.

Third, always verify the credentials of the media person who approaches you. Make sure the reporter or editor is who he / she claims to be, and that you are comfortable talking with, or sending a reply to that media outlet. Ask for a telephone number and then call that number to make sure you are reaching a credible media outlet. Use Google search to find the outlet and confirm the credentials of the reporter / editor.

Finally, always reply to every media inquiry or request. To say nothing,  “No comment” is to invite speculation. Into this vacuum, the reporter can direct the most negative speculation. The lack of a statement from you will most assuredly not help your brand or your reputation.