Zika and the 2016 Olympics: Brazil’s Communication Challenge

Zika Virus Communication

How does a country assure the world it is safe to travel there? That is the challenge Brazil faces a little less than six months before it is set to welcome thousands of athletes and nearly a half million visitors to the XXXI Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil has the largest outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has now spread to 33 countries. There is no vaccine for the virus, which has infected as many as 1.3 million Brazilians, according to a report from the Associated Press.

 

Many health authorities believe there is a link between the Zika virus and a spike in Brazil of microcephaly, a birth defect marked by an abnormally small head. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an international health emergency February 1, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising pregnant women or those considering becoming pregnant to avoid travel to places with Zika outbreaks.

 

This is the first time a Latin American country has played host to the Olympics so there is a lot at stake for Brazil. Their economy is stuck in a recession, unemployment is high and the government is still trying to recover from a corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras. The country sorely needs the boon a successful Olympics can bring in terms of economic development, jobs for locals, infrastructure improvements and travelers from around the world who want to celebrate their country’s teams, party and spend money. Even though the risk of contracting Zika is low, uncertainty can be a powerful deterrent.

 

While publicly showing support for how Brazil is tackling Zika, the USOC also, according to a Reuters story, “told U.S. sports federations that athletes and staff concerned for their health over the Zika virus should consider not going to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in August.”

 

An ongoing Zika epidemic could prompt some athletes, staff, sponsors and high-spending tourists to steer clear of the Games. Even if the risk of infection to any given visitor is very low – as many health experts contend – uncertainties persist.

 

U.S. Soccer player Hope Solo has said that if she had to play in the Rio games today, she would not go. She may be the first high-profile athlete to put a stake in the ground; she will not be the last.

 

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has acknowledged that the virus poses a real threat to her country and has at times waffled publicly in her belief that the Aedes aegypti mosquito can be eradicated and the spread of the virus stopped. President Rouseff has also said that “victory depends on our determination” and has deployed 200,000 troops in the eradication effort.

 

I would argue that in a parallel with that determined effort there must be a consistent and proactive communications program to address the concerns of all audiences: Brazilians, the IOC, WHO and other health agencies, Olympic athletes and their families, sponsors and tourists. Here is my game plan for making that happen:

 

Stand Strong – There needs to be regular communication from the Brazilian government on progress being made and whoever is delivering the latest news must be unequivocal in their belief that the outbreak will be brought under control. The optics of a doubtful President in front of a global audience are bad and will cascade down to key audiences and stakeholders including the IOC and sponsors and potentially shake their confidence.

 

Demonstrate Progress – Brazil’s National Health Surveillance Agency (Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária Or ANVISA) posts updates to its website but they mostly concern  diagnostic test kits that will be available soon, prevention tips and some breaking news. If this is the central resource the government is driving people to for the latest information on Zika, there needs to be more content and images there to demonstrate progress. There should be more photos and videos than what we have seen. Through graphics or charts, they need to find ways to mark progress as they reduce mosquito reproduction.

 

Get Visual – We love our TV here in the U.S. but we have nothing on Brazil in that regard. Theirs is a massive TV culture and Brazilian TV is pumped out across Latin America, making it the medium of choice for the government to get its message out. President Rousseff has delivered a number of televised addresses and she should continue with that every week.
Beyond her words, those addresses need to tell a story with images from the army’s efforts, and visits she and other government leaders should make to cities and towns across the country.

 

Socialize – Using #ZikaZero and other trending hashtags, there needs to be a purposeful social media strategy to consistently put out the latest information and drive those concerned about Zika to ANVISA. The IOC, WHO and CDC—all trusted sources people will turn to—can share those official Brazilian government information across their channels.

 

Like any good training regime, Brazil needs to show progress every week between now and August 5. The world is watching.

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