Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

I am continually saddened by how everything -- everything -- in our polarized country becomes politicized, even in the midst of a health- and economic-related national emergency.

When you read that sentence, did you think, "Well, it's the president who politicized the crisis"? Or "media and Democrats" rather than "president"?

I mentioned during the 2016 election that, when it comes to political discourse in America, Paul Simon summed it up best in his song "The Boxer": "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

This creates problems for travel brands and advisors who want to communicate with clients, customers and guests during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yonder, a company that uses artificial intelligence to track online conversations, teamed up recently with brand crisis management strategist Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing, to create a report titled "Covid-19: Protecting Brand Integrity in the Agenda-Driven Coronavirus Conversation."

It provides plenty of cautionary advice for travel marketers wanting to communicate in the current environment, even when the messages one wants to deliver are crafted to keep spirits up and dreams alive.

The problem, it seems, is that even innocuous-seeming narratives can be hijacked by agenda-driven organizations on the right or left. The report notes that about 5% of all online posts about the virus originate from groups who see opportunity in Covid-19 to further their political positions. But the reach of those messages reappears in 16% of all posts, influencing or reinforcing political biases. These biases, in turn, shade how your marketing messages are interpreted.

"Consumers across the board view everything about the outbreak through the prism of ideology," the report states. "Even a seemingly nonpolitical decision by a brand to comply with state, federal or institutional recommendations (i.e., canceling an event) may be interpreted as [taking sides]."

To avoid this, Gabor recommends to be certain that current brand messaging is consistent with how your brand has always spoken and to avoid language that may be uttered by perceived partisans.

For instance, this next statement may seem somewhat dry, reminiscent of a public service announcement: "We support our state's efforts to keep students at home by offering all our courses online, free of charge."

But rather than link your message to the "state," the report instead suggests: "All our courses are now free of charge online to make your child's learning as easy and seamless as ever."

And even when a message appears to you to be positive and upbeat, there may be the potential for backlash. For instance, the report cautions against, "Subscribe to our food delivery service in order to stay safe at home and help flatten the curve!" The same sentiment could be recast as "Spending more time at home these days? Our food delivery app has always had you covered."

Apparently, even terminology one might hear from medical experts when watching the news ("flatten the curve!") should be avoided.

"A well-intentioned brand may echo the recommendations of universities, public health officials or local governments in communicating a change in the way they do business," the report says. "[But] this runs the risk of being interpreted as siding with one or another in the ideological battleground around Covid-19."

In marketing, it has always been true that what you say must be tested against how it's heard, and marketing textbooks are filled with examples of tone-deaf campaigns or ads. Politics has thus always been a consideration, but the intense polarization we see currently has made communicating about almost anything a minefield, exacerbated by the multiplicity of information sources. The odds are good that you don't listen to, or aren't even aware of, media outlets and organizations that your customers consider trusted, reliable and unbiased and that cast events you think you understand into unfamiliar narratives and alien contexts.

So, unless you're specifically marketing to an organization whose politics are central to your pitch, perhaps the wisest course of action can be found in the signoff I now see in most emails I receive: "Stay safe."

But in such a charged environment: How? Gabor has some advice specifically for travel companies and travel advisors. "The best companies in every industry are bridging the gap with content that's inspiring and helpful, and some travel companies are doing a good job keeping customers engaged and dreaming by sharing ways we can travel in a virtual way," she wrote to me. "My travel agent sends helpful emails about how to keep ourselves and kids engaged by viewing online concerts, the great museums of the world and other digital content."

This helps keep her advisor "top of mind for when I'm getting ready to book my next big journey, when we're all traveling again. Travel is a category ripe with content that can help us dream and look forward to a better time; it's a welcome respite to many of us chained to desks at home offices."

• • •

On a lighter note, Gabor also forwarded to me a parody of the ubiquitous "we're all in this together" marketing email:

AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM OUR CEO

Dear Deb, 

You don't remember ever giving us your email address or know how we got ahold of it. You once briefly thought about us seven years ago. However, we are here for you during these [UNPRECEDENTED, UNCERTAIN, CHALLENGING, UNSETTLING, UNUSUAL, RAPIDLY EVOLVING] times. 

We are keeping everyone safe and monitoring the situation. If you need a new [WINE RACK, SOFA TABLE, MACHETE, FLOOR LAMP, OUTDOOR FIREPLACE, ASTON MARTIN], we are in this together.

Also, here's a reminder that we're also here for our employees, whom you didn't even realize existed until now. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by the current health crisis. Just know that [BRAND THAT YOU DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HAD YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS] is by your side during these tough times. 

Sincerely, 

A brand you don't really know.

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