News & Views

Environmental Crisis Management in Focus

Fires in Australia have marked 2019 and 2020 as they rage throughout the nation, making international headlines as the environmental crisis spread. It’s not the kind of press a DMO hopes to achieve. Knowing how to counter the flood of damaging press, however, is key to staying afloat during these trying times.

Environmental crisis situations are impossible to predict – they wouldn’t be disasters if we could. A tsunami, a volcano, a hurricane, a fire, and of course earthquakes are just a few of the events that a DMO dreads. While being prepared for any environmental crisis is a good start, you can never truly be ready. Instead, knowing how to respond to the event in real time is crucial.

In a recent overview, we introduced the concept of crisis management. It’s all about asking the right questions so we can quickly respond in the most effective way possible. The first question when a crisis hits should always be, “What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?”

Tourism Australia is a recent of example of a DMO doing things well, and the team there is not waiting for the fires to pass before taking action to maintain tourism numbers.

Contextualize the environmental crisis in the media

Every major publication is running photos of kangaroos fleeing flames and cute koalas drinking from water bottles. Headlines like these, however, might make it hard to keep visitor numbers from dropping. Fear surrounding air quality and disrupted services are enough to make travelers rethink their plans.

The hardest part about fighting a disaster is trying to keep it in its proper perspective. Tourism Australia has been doing just that with its website, including graphics that help simplify and downplay the fire’s impact. Working with the media, offering the right tools for journalists but also making sure that they are getting the story right is of the utmost importance. Be proactive and get ahead of the story as much as you can.

This might mean sending out press releases or maintaining a strong Twitter presence to make sure your narrative is leading the pack. It’s not easy to manage, but no crisis ever is!

Monitor any inaccurate reports

Your monitoring efforts can’t catch everything, so it is important to fight misinformation, to make sure that rumors don’t spread like the very wildfire that is making headlines. With so many blogs and social networks out there, it’s likely impossible to battle every single fake post, but maintaining a thumb on the mass media – including digital sites like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post – are good ways to stay on top of things.

Follow discussions on Twitter as much as possible and flag any fake images or stats that might scare away visitors. It’s not an exact science, but it’s an essential part of any destination management strategy during an environmental crisis.

Tourism Australia has been working tirelessly to fight misinformation about its fires. With “fake news” now a news topic in and of itself, it’s actually not as difficult to tip off the media to the inaccuracies out there. Journalists will be happy to attract readers with a story on misinformation, like this one on Forbes.

Show how tourism can help local economies

When the tourism revenue stops flowing, a destination can suffer on the local level. By speaking actively about how tourism will help, Tourism Australia has been keeping visitors and the media updated with statements on their website.

On a smaller level, and to keep the press interested, find stories on the ground that will inspire people to come help. Some are more tragic than others, but the point is to put a real face – human or koala – on the effects of the environmental crisis, and not just numbers. Travelers will feel better about their trip if they know they are making a positive contribution to local economies, to save those whom they read about in some recent story or article.

Give these voices a platform on your website or pitch their stories to the press. We don’t suggest you sensationalize anyone’s pain, but it’s important for visitors to know that there are real people affected by these events.

Liaise with government tourism boards to mitigate warnings

Make sure you’re working with tourism boards around the world to mitigate warnings. The U.S. recently reduced the risk warning to Australia, something that the Australian Prime Minister advocated for, since the warning placed Australia alongside Gaza in terms of safety. That’s not a great message to have out there.

By making sure you know where your visitors are coming from, and working with their government travel offices, you can prevent inflated risks or statements that might scare aware travelers to your country. It’s one thing to make sure the press has the story right, but it’s equally important to make sure travel advisor boards are also in the know, since the media will look to them as well.

Collaborate with experts or local celebrities to promote the destination during or just after the disaster

Recovery is, hopefully, the goal after any environmental crisis. We’ve been there before. At DCI, we helped California rebound after fires in wine country with a major event that attracted positive media attention, and visitor numbers increased because of it.

Australia is doing the same. With huge investments into turning around their scorched image, Australia hopes to regain the $4 billion or so it lost because of the fires.

Communicate on this point. Get out there. Share it. Show it with infographics if you can. The whole point of a recovery effort is to get travelers excited to maintain plans or organize an upcoming trip to your destination. If future visitors see that you are investing resources, that’s a great start.

Don’t be afraid to sketch out concrete plans – however provisionary – so that travelers know what to expect when they finally arrive, injecting welcomed cash flow back into the economy. Effects may be longstanding, but every environmental crisis will pass eventually, and making sure your DMO stays afloat during the storm should be a top priority.

Feeling unprepared should an environmental crisis befall your destination? At DCI, we have 60 years of experience helping destinations stay the course during disastrous wildfires and earthquakes, among other naturally occurring events. Get in touch with Kayla Leska, [email protected], to learn how DCI can help you prepare for the unimaginable.

Written By

Kayla Leska

Kayla is Managing Director of DCI's Tourism Public Relations Division. She oversees communications strategy for DCI’s tourism clients and directs the firm’s tourism crisis and recovery communication efforts. Kayla leads publicity teams in the U.S. and Canada. She earned her BA in Public Relations at SUNY Oswego.

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