zika virus pr crisis

The Zika virus has become a regional epidemic in certain destinations all over the world. Now many flight attendants and other airline staff are resisting the compulsion to land in these places. At this point, airlines are allowing staff to “opt out” of flights to areas where Zika outbreaks have been reported. However, these locations include popular vacation destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The opt-outs come with conditions. United said it would allow pregnant flight attendants the option of withdrawing from assignments, but did not elaborate if these were switches or voluntarily approved loss of work.

“The safety of our employees is paramount and providing this option was the right thing to do under these circumstances,” United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson told reporters.

Delta took the options one step further, allowing attendants to swap out assignments for flights to other destinations. Delta spokesmen told the media a “small number” of crew members had taken advantage of the swap option.

It’s an interesting public relations conundrum. The World Health Organization is already classifying the Zika outbreak as a public health emergency of “international concern.” Estimates of current spread include roughly 4 million infected people over the next year. Meanwhile, the impacted areas are well-traveled and popular with American and European tourists.

While current recommendations against travel from the CDC are limited to pregnant women, the news isn’t good for anyone who depends on travel or tourism in those destinations. When it comes to childbearing, nearly everyone is wired to be “better safe than sorry.” No one wants to put themselves or their future children at risk, whether they are currently pregnant or not.

Doubling down on the fear escalation, the US Department of Defense recently said it would offer a voluntary relocation to pregnant employees and their beneficiaries who are stationed in areas where Zika has been found.

Now that both the private and public sector are openly involved in leaving the area, there’s no way the tourism industry can avoid the PR crisis. They need to address this carefully, with a deft approach taking into consideration both the justifiable fears of the general public and the necessity of their businesses to continue operating without catastrophic losses.

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Ronn Torossian is the Founder, President and CEO of New York-based 5W Public Relations. He has overseen the company's rapid growth and expansion to the Inc. 500 list, as well as provided counsel to hundreds of companies, including members of the Fortune 500, Inc. 500 and Forbes 400. His work spans global interests, corporate entities, high-profile individuals, regional business entities, government agencies and academic institutions - both on routine public relations matters and extremely sensitive issues. One of the foremost public relations experts in the U.S., Torossian is known for his aggressive, results-focused orientation, as well as his close working relationships with members of the media, influencers, decision makers, politicians and celebrities. At 5W Public Relations, Torossian's client experience has included programs for Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, Barnes & Noble, Cantor Fitzgerald, IHOP, McDonald's, Evian, EDS, VeriSign, XM Radio, Seagram's, The Loews Regency, Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment, Marriott Hotels, Vail Resorts, Pamela Anderson, Snoop Dogg, the Government of Israel, and others. Referred to by The New York Post as a "publicity guru," by Fox News as a "high-powered PR CEO," by Tyra Banks as a "crisis management guru," and by CNN as "a leading PR expert," Torossian is regularly featured in and quoted by the media, including by CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, NBC, The New York Times, and others. CBS National News said "Ronn Torossian knows spin," and a New York Times feature story on Torossian referred to him as "The consummate hard-driving, scrappy NY publicist." Earlier in his career, Torossian was a Vice President/Group Director for one of The InterPublic Group's (IPG) largest PR agencies, where he was responsible for significant client growth and successful client programs, including work for Clinique, Fox News Channel, DHL, Hard Rock Café and others. A resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Torossian was named to the Advertising Age "40 Under 40" list, PR Week's "40 Under 40" List, is a regular lecturer at universities and conferences, a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and a board member of numerous non-profit organizations.