Brazil has had a very rough 2016.
So rough in fact, that John Oliver’s latest rant, this one on the country’s recent travails, made just one passing mention of the Zika virus (focusing more on ongoing political turmoil in the country).
But Zika has dominated the country’s headlines since January: according to MediaMiser’s online tool, “Zika” has appeared in more than a quarter of all Brazil-specific online articles over the past three months (Over the previous nine months that number falls to six per cent, despite the official date of the outbreak being April 2015.)
And with such a glut of coverage, most of it inherently negative, the Brazilian tourism industry ━ which generated $6.8B for the country’s economy in 2014 ━ has been forced into some heavy damage control.
Enter Embratur, Brazil’s federal tourism agency.
Hoping to preempt a potential tourism crisis ━ made all the more intimidating by the fact that the country is preparing to host the Summer Olympic Games in August ━ Embratur last month released a statement detailing the latest measures being undertaken to control the virus’ spread.
A wise PR move, to be sure. And one that those who worked at the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation, Tourism Toronto, and the Canadian Tourism Commission (now Destination Canada) can likely relate to, as they were tasked with handling the media fallout when SARS broke out in Toronto in 2003.
The media was ravenous, the coverage negative and damaging. In particular, U.S. outlets often portrayed Toronto as a city where the disease was active in the general population, when in fact the outbreak was confined to health care facilities.
In order to stem the damage wrought by such bad press, tourism organizations like the three mentioned above were thrown head-first into the deep end of the PR pool.
With nearly 15 years having passed, Lovekin recently reflected on the dark days of early 2003, and came up with three major takeaways from the crisis. And it looks like Embratur appears to be on the right track:
- Enlist reputable public health authorities to bolster your message
- In its statement, Embratur pointed out that the Brazilian government has set aside $465M to combat Zika, and has assembled a task force of more than 300,000 health workers, along with 220,000 military personnel, charged with eliminating potential mosquito breeding grounds and educating the public on its role in combatting the spread of the virus.
- By spreading the message that the government is doing what it can to contain the spread, Embratur helps its own cause by reassuring the public.
- Correct false impressions with facts
- As bad press continued to proliferate, and Brazil more and more was painted as some sort of no-go zone, Embratur made sure to point out that neither the World Health Organization nor the World Tourism Organization have imposed travel restrictions on the country (with the exception of those aimed at pregnant women).
- Give the media something else to say
- In order to shift attention in 2003, Toronto highlighted three positives: hotels dropping their prices, the Supreme Court of Canada suspending the illegality of cannabis, and the first gay marriage in North America being performed at city hall. These three developments combined to help blow SARS out of the news cycle.
- While Brazil would love to be able to call attention to anything approaching these positives, the truth is that the country is in turmoil, with its economy in tatters and its president being called to resign. Nevertheless Embratur pointed out that, despite the Zika scare, Carnival tourist numbers actually rose year-over-year in 2016, with the Board reporting a “significant increase”.
Embratur’s statement also adhered to a number of established PR tenets, namely:
- Transparency (aka “Tell the truth”)
- The simple fact that the Board released the statement illustrated its willingness to be honest with the public. Treating your audience with respect and dignity is PR rule No. 1.
- Confidence (aka “Accentuate the positive”)
- One should avoid hubris, yet always be ready to direct your audience’s attention to good news. Embratur president Vinicius Lummertz has said he’s optimistic about the performance of the industry, adding that the Olympic and Paralympic Games have everything in place to be a success, and should ensure that the country becomes a long-term tourism power.
- Consideration of the long term (aka “Manage for tomorrow”)
- PR is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t jeopardize tomorrow for a quick victory today. By resisting the urge to downplay the crisis ━ and indeed demonstrating a willingness to deal with it head on ━ Embratur has helped its own cause. Its management of the situation certainly hasn’t hurt its chances of enhancing Brazil’s image as a tourism destination for the foreseeable future.
PR crises don’t last forever, and by the time the Rio Olympics are over, odds are that the “catastrophe spotlight” will be shining brightly on some other destination. Nevertheless, Embratur can be proud of the job it has done, and continues to do, in ensuring that Brazil preserves its robust tourism industry.