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Pandemic Crisis Preparations

Thinking the unthinkable is essential if you're considering crisis communications, but today's news about the spread of swine influenza has to make us think the unthinkable very fast. 

Oddly one of the first things we do when a potential crisis looms is to ensure we're planning for a recovery. One team should be handling reactive enquiries and day-to-day communications, but get someone in place fast to plan how and when to start communicating for a world beyond a crisis.

As the swine influenza news broke over the weekend I was impressed by how proactive and open the information was from the World Health Organisation (WHO). As well as the normal questions and answers and factual updates you can you can see the full transcript of WHO press conferences, or listen to the debate.

I think governments are also being very open and reassuring compared to previous health concerns.  It seems we're hearing quickly in which countries  people are being tested and when tests are confirmed clear.

But how will travellers respond if there is any sense of risk? Will this greater openess and transparency work?

At this stage we can only look back on lessons learnt from previous global health risks.

Today's news made me look back at some notes we'd taken at a PATA CIMTIG seminar in 2002 on the impact of SARS. Cathay Pacific's marketing manger for UK and Ireland talked about the impact of the crisis and what the airline did to get through it.

Between 6 to 15 March 2002 Cathay lost 75% of its passengers and lost US$3 million in cash a day. The airline said it found very few guidelines from official bodies such as government and tourist bodies. It was an unseen, unknown virus. People hadn't seen it coming and didn't know how to react to it.  So Cathay did the following

1) Set about a program of 'response, reassurance and recovery - Flying without Fear' - reassuring passengers that travel was now safe and that the air within aircraft was safe.

2) Focused on communications - internal and external. Web, print ads, media interviews. Projected themselves as credible spokesperson on such issues and actually emerged stronger because of it.

3) Took many internal cost saving measures, such as cutting out expensive tail lights on the planes

4) Continued to work with relevant bodies - maintained relations and connections. e.g. the HK Tourism Coalition - to build a 'We Love HK campaign' and getting people back out on the streets of Hong Kong. Stressed the importance of staying connected - continued with twice daily flights to HK to help re-build confidence.

5) FAM trips - Lowered costs (early bird promos to lure visitors back - 10,000 ticket giveaway and 50% off certain flights)

6) Focused on getting their products back to market asap

By July 2002, Cathay had restored 70% scheduled flights

Fast forward to 2009 and we have a vastly different world. A world of immediate and more scrutinised global communications where one item of news travels the world faster than you can even draw breath.  So if today's news is difficult to watch, do think the unthinkable and ensure you're prepared to answer how you'd handle the issues if they were suddenly affecting your country, or your business.  How would you handle today? How would you plan for recovery?


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