Brands let health authorities take the lead on Zika communications

Brands and Olympic organizations are taking their cues from health officials when talking about the Zika virus. That's exactly what they should be doing, say experts.

As concern over the Zika outbreak grows, organizations participating in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympic Games are making sure their communications align with those of public health officials.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has created a dedicated website for travel plans to Rio, but the organization is sticking to the script, deferring to the expertise of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the information provided.  

"We tell clients and brands not to add to the confusion by communicating their own opinion that’s not tightly aligned with public health authorities," says Ramiro Prudencio, president and CEO of Latin America at Burson Marsteller.

Disseminating accurate, consistent information has been a focus for organizations involved in the Games, including suppliers such as Airbnb. Rio 2016 brought on the disruptive lodging website to provide alternate housing for the throngs of arriving tourists.

Thirty-thousand guests have made reservations, 40% of whom are traveling from within Brazil, says Stephanie Ruiz, head of communications for Latin America. Airbnb has more than 25,000 listings available for Rio 2016, compared with the 20,000 it had for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which took place in cities across the country.

"We’re a global company so information is being shared constantly as we follow the news," Ruiz says. "We make sure everyone’s aligned. Our office in Brazil is taking the lead since they’re in the market. But we remain aware of the different sensitivities to the situation around the world."

Airbnb retrofitted its blog to create a dedicated section notifying customers of the announcement the World Health Organization made classifying Zika as a global public health emergency, as well as travel notices issued by the CDC. The WHO recently dismissed a call by 150 health specialists to postpone the Olympics, saying, "based on current assessment, canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of the Zika virus."

"We are actively communicating the risks associated with the virus to our community as more information becomes available," the company’s website reads.

Airbnb is not only communicating about Zika, but changing its policies. The company is allowing pregnant women, women who plan to become pregnant, and their family members to cancel reservations for a full refund.

"For the Olympics, we'll have a dedicated trust and safety team with agents that will work around the clock to respond quickly to customer concerns," Ruiz adds, via email. "The safety of the Airbnb community is the single most important thing we work on every day. This is something we are continuing to monitor on a regular basis; at this point in time we are focused on communicating the risks of the virus to our community, while following the guidance issued by the WHO and CDC."

Brian Burlingame, CEO of JeffreyGroup, a firm that has operations across Latin America, notes that his agency advises clients to communicate often during similar situations but stick to the script.

"Anytime there’s a heightened sense of concern, it’s important to communicate with frequency and consistency and to stay on message," he explains. "You also have to listen. When groups voice their concerns, it’s a big job to listen and respond in kind."

Claudia Gioia, president and CEO of Hill+Knowlton’s Latin American offices, says communicators should prioritize informing people so they can make their own decisions.

"Before any athletic event, especially with the Olympics, the media tends to revolve their conversations around the problems," she explains. "Communications will help keep people informed and the more informed they are, they will make their decisions. The more transparent and open they are the better."

Zika worries aren’t just limited to tourists. Athletes, the main attraction of the Olympics themselves, are also voicing concern about getting infected with Zika. Tennis superstar Serena Williams, for instance, says she plans to compete in the Olympics but be "super-protected." Golfer Rory McIlroy said last week that he could sit out the Summer Games due to Zika, but changed course this week to indicate he is more comfortable with playing in Brazil.

If a star athlete such as Williams opts out of the Olympics, it could affect the International Olympic Committee’s decision-making process, Prudencio notes.

"That would be a big change in the paradigm," he says, adding, "My sense is as people know more about the disease, they will feel more comfortable."

Experts note that visitors should stay informed, part of which is understanding the historical context of the country and its contemporary environment.

"Brazil is very sensitive to the issue not only because of the Olympics, which is a secondary concern when it comes to Zika, but because their own population has been affected," Prudencio says.

Mosquito-borne outbreaks are not uncommon in the country. They include Dengue, which is carried by the same mosquito, yet is outpacing the spread of Zika, and H1N1, but neither has received as much coverage. To minimize Zika’s spread, the government deployed 200,000 military personnel in areas ripe for mosquito breeding grounds, which are regions typically of lower socioeconomic status with fewer resources. Authorities anticipate mosquito populations will decrease in August when the Games kick off during the Brazilian winter.

The level of alarm outside Brazil doesn’t match that inside the country, according to Marco Antonio Sabino, partner and chairman of Llorente & Cuenca Brazil. He says communications should be based on concrete measures, noting that the Brazilian government plans to hand out booklets to athletes with precautions they should take against mosquito-borne illnesses.

"There is clearly a gap of information around this: both internally, where we see a decrease on deeper analysis and communications compared to the beginning of the year, and externally, where we see an increase on alarmist communication that does not look for local specialists to get an approach consistent to our reality," Sabino explains. "This is just a suggestion, but the organization and Brazilian Ministry of Health should join efforts to present our specialists as authorities daily, speaking about the risks but presenting their conclusions and commitments."

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