Five Communication Lessons Learned In The Wake Of The Zika Health Crisis

In 2016, the World Health Organization declared Zika an international public health emergency. This health crisis, possibly more than any other in the past, brought to light a dire need for enhanced corporate safety and health communications. Many companies with operations in Zika zones and employees traveling to at-risk areas were caught off guard and forced to scramble to educate and inform impacted staff. Businesses are still assessing the implications of the outbreak, how best to mitigate current and future risks, and how to continue the process of fine tuning safety communications.

My company was called upon by numerous Zika-impacted clients for help devising and communicating Zika prevention tactics. As the PR and marketing manager, maintaining and updating corporate safety communications is a fluid never-ending task, even without the added challenges of a health crisis like Zika underway.

However, it doesn’t take a Zika-scale health panic to prompt the need for a strong corporate crisis communications strategy. Most brands will face PR challenges over time that could include the need to address product quality or safety issues, public misconceptions or misleading information in the marketplace, or employee disasters.

Here are five key lessons communicators can learn from the Zika health crisis, and how to apply them when facing any PR crisis head on:

Team Allocation

Build your emergency communications team in advance. First, pinpoint the face of your brand, which could be the CEO. Allocate key leadership members, company spokespeople and tactical executors. For example, Insect Shield’s emergency communications team is comprised of the company co-founders including the CEO and president, senior vice presidents in charge of each business unit and the PR communications team.

In addition, consider assigning backup technical spokespeople with deeper fluencies in the intricacies of the specific crisis at hand. We deploy technical advisors as adjunct spokespeople as needed when deeper layers of entomology or testing protocol procedures need to be distilled efficiently internally or to the media.


Make a list of trusted sources and third-party experts. When a crisis unfolds, do your due diligence, research the facts and ensure the information is legitimate and can be trusted enough to take action. Compare the information from several sources and experts. This can be achieved by building ongoing relationships with relevant experts.

Throughout the years, we have sought out and organically established relationships with leading vector-borne disease researchers and medical specialists, university public health and entomology professors, behavioral scientists, veterinarians, global health workers and the media. These connections were formed in a variety of ways including direct outreach, conferences, collaborative research projects and humanitarian initiatives. These are the experts we turn to regularly in order to stay current and briefed, both during a crisis and on an ongoing basis when questions arise beyond the scope of our in-house knowledge base.


Carry out a tiered approach of predetermined top-down internal notifications outlining key facts to acknowledge what is known, what is still unclear and what steps are being taken to close informational voids. Move outward to include impacted freelance staff, consultants, clients, stakeholders, vendors and media.

Insect Shield adopted this approach when the Zika news broke. The initial step consisted of outreach to our expert panel to distill and corroborate the Zika news headlines, summarize the global risk and outline prevention tactics. We were reminded that some of the same personal prevention tactics recommended help protect against malaria, West Nile virus and other insect-borne illnesses were also applicable to Zika virus protection. So while we still had no idea of the global reach of Zika, this was familiar communications territory and provided a solid groundwork to build upon.

This information was shared with the key leadership team and further edited for company-wide distribution. Subsequent drafts were distributed to brands partners, sales reps, company spokespeople and the media.

Impact And Prevention Tactics

Outline and acknowledge the employee impact of the crisis. Provide an overview of mandatory safety protocol and additional self-guided precautions and tips. Outline eligibility for corporate-funded programs and safety stipends and explain how to redeem them.

Numerous companies reached out to us for help developing Zika safety protocols including the U.S. Olympic team, media groups headed to Rio, airlines, non-profit relief organizations and oil, gas and mining companies. The ability to offer vetted and effective layers of protection for at-risk employees amidst the general panic was hugely important.

Our strategy and programs can now serve as a template and be easily reconfigured when needed in the future. Consider the safety risks your company faces, look at your current programs and communications, and start thinking about how to optimize them now.

Ongoing Monitoring

Assign resources to conduct ongoing monitoring of the crisis, and develop briefing structures for updates to company leadership and corporate spokespeople. Adjust communication outreach accordingly.

There are a host of monitoring tools available to communicators that enable seamless monitoring of topics. We use robust media monitoring tools such as Cision, BurrellesLuce and Critical Mention, but simple Google Alerts can also suffice. Keyword alerts can be set up in all systems to monitor the latest headlines in real time.

So if your company is facing a crisis, whether it’s on a global or a personal scale, it’s important to have an effective communications strategy in place that can immediately be called into action.

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