Jeff Chatterton – Lessons About Reputation Management For African Tourism Companies During The Ebola Crisis

Jeff Chatterton is a high-risk and crisis communications consultant, and the owner of Checkmate Public Affairs. Chatterton specializes in building credibility for at-risk tourism destinations, in order to restore and grow trust and profit. He is currently engaged with a number of tour operators in East and South Africa, as they dispel myths and misconceptions about the Ebola outbreak. We recently caught up with Jeff and asked him to talk with us about his strategy for dealing with companies effected by the Ebola crisis.

Jason W. Hart: Jeff, you’ve done reputation management consulting for companies involving product recalls, chemical contamination, layoffs, boycotts, natural disasters, and more. That’s quite a list. Can you explain to us what reputation management is?

Jeff Chatterton: At the end of the day it’s really simple. Unless you’re managing your reputation someone or something is going to manage it for you. A lot of companies and a lot of organizations are branded by what you read about them, what you hear about them, what people have to say about them. They’re not actively doing what they can in order to respond in a way that builds trust and builds credibility. That’s just shooting themselves in the foot.

What I do is I work with companies that want to be ethical, they want to be honest, and they want to approach a challenging situation in a way that is honorable, but requires a little bit of help when it comes to how they explain their side of the situation. It’s easy to be drowned out by professional agitators or activists or a confused public or a confused or misleading news media. I help my clients cut through all of that and be able to communicate their truthful message in a way that’s impactful, and that resonates with the people that they’re trying to communicate with the most.

Jason W. Hart: What are people asking you to help them with right now? What’s the most common concern you’re seeing?

Jeff Chatterton: Today I’ve been up to my eyeballs in working with an African tour company. I’m on my way to Uganda in early November to make a presentation at the African Travel Association Summit. I’ve been talking to quite a few different travel operators, especially in East Africa and in South Africa. They’re really victims of the Ebola crisis. Even though, for example, Johannesburg is further away from the hot zone than London, England. They’re thousands and thousands of miles away from any of the Ebola affected countries. There hasn’t been a single case of Ebola in South Africa. Yet arrivals in Johannesburg are down by some accounts by as much as 30%. I’m talking to tour companies all over the place, and they’re projecting 30% downturns, 40% downturns. The problem with a downturn is tourism for a lot of these companies is that it’s not just some company in North America. They employ hundreds and thousands of people all over the African sub-continent, and their families depend on that income for a living.

Jason W. Hart: Ebola. What a hot topic. You can’t pick up a newspaper or watch TV without hitting a story about the Ebola virus. Like you said earlier, it’s hard cutting through all the hype and the mixed messages. I can’t confidently say I know whom to believe on this topic. Can you help us understand what’s really going on?

Jeff Chatterton: That’s exactly the message that I’ve been working on with the tour companies and the travel operators. Right now, you’ve got a lot of concerned potential clients. They’re sitting back in their house in New York or Atlanta or London or Madrid and they’re being overwhelmed with 75 different conflicting sources of news about the Ebola crisis. At the same time, they’re considering an African safari trip, but it’s also not too hard to think about taking a Hawaiian cruise instead. Maybe they’ll just push Africa off for a year or two just because it’s confusing.

You’ve got the CDC saying one thing, you’ve got the World Health Organization saying one thing. You’ve got all these different things and you don’t know what is true. What I’ve been working on with my travel operator clients is teaching them that you need to be the trusted source of information when it comes to traveler’s concerns about the Ebola virus. You’re not going to surprise anyone if you talk about Ebola right now and you’re an African tour company. Everyone in the world knows it’s out there. At least be trusted, be a credible source of information on it so that they know things like Johannesburg is thousands of miles away from the hot zone. If you sit and just simply rely on other people to do that messaging for you, you’re going to end up on the wrong side of bankruptcy court.

Jason W. Hart: Are you seeing people do things they think is helping, but is actually hurting their chances of success?

Jeff Chatterton: The big one that jumps to mind is the lack of factual information. There’s a real need for fact-based information that’s out there. I mean, people need to understand that distances are what they are and that the Ebola virus is what it is. That’s not what a perspective tourism client is looking for. What a perspective tourism client is really looking for at the end of the day is empathy. What they really need is for them to know that the tour operator that they’re considering spending thousands of dollars with is aware of their concerns, and is doing something to address and acknowledge that problem. Once they understand that their concerns are being met they can bring their guard down and they can actually start to get into consuming fact-based information.

Until you calm the waters with a good and healthy dose of empathy you’re never going to get to that point.

Jason W. Hart: Other than doing nothing, is there anything you see people proactively or actively doing that you can see making the situation worse?

Jeff Chatterton: Don’t dismiss the problem of sitting on their hands and not doing anything. I’m a big fan of massive imperfect action, and right now the African proverb is: “If you want to go fast, go alone; If you want to go far, go together.” I think everyone tends to want to go far and they’re sitting and waiting for the central government to come up with some sort strategy or plan. And that’s not going to work, that’s going to take six months or more before they get around to doing something. In the meantime, you’re losing thousands of dollars a day.

The biggest problem I see is twofold.

A) They’re being entirely reactive. They’re addressing passenger concerns, but they’re only doing it in a direct response to a query. They’re not actually reaching out to their existing clients or to their booked clients or anything like that and saying we understand that this might be a little bit intimidating, do you have any thoughts or concerns? Is there anything we can do to help you understand what’s going on around here?

B) They’re downplaying the seriousness of the problem. When someone says, “I don’t want to come to your facility because I’m concerned about Ebola,” about the worst thing you can do is laugh it off and say, “There’s no Ebola here.” That’s factually correct, but you’re shoving it in their face and mocking their concerns at that point. It’s not going to win you friends in the short or the long term.

Jason W. Hart: Jeff, I think you hit on this earlier about the focus on empathy, and showing them that we understand their concern. How would you respond?

Jeff Chatterton: I would get a direct conversation going with as many different possible and potential audiences you can. You need to be proactive, you need to reach out, you need to get a little bit outside your comfort zone and talk to non-traditional audiences and anyone else who has been traditionally ignored. It’s a lot of softer skill sets that don’t tend to get covered in business school. Things like active listening. Not interrupting. Letting them communicate, no matter how ludicrous their thoughts or their concerns might be – in their head, it’s a completely legitimate concern. You need to give that gravity, you need to acknowledge the reality of the situation, especially in their head. After you do that – then and only then – can you actually start to launch into the truth. You need to have the truth on your side, but truth is not what’s going to win you the fight at the end of the day.

Jason W. Hart: As a reputation management professional, how is working with you going to improve their chances for success?

Jeff Chatterton: There’s a lot of companies that probably have an instinctive awareness of the fact that they need to be doing better when it comes to proactive outreach. They don’t know how to do that. They don’t know what audiences they need to reach out to, they don’t know what to say to those audiences in order to be different, in order to be trustworthy, in order to be credible. What I do is I understand exactly the recipe that goes into being trusted, being trustworthy, and being credible, so that even if they don’t like what you have to say they’re going to believe you and they’re going to trust you when you say it.

Jason W. Hart: There’s something to be said about the phrase, “Time the result.” In a time of crisis or an urgent situation like the Ebola crisis, you want the shortest path you can take to the result, right?

Jeff Chatterton: Absolutely.

Jason W. Hart: It sounds like someone with your expertise can deliver the result they need very quickly.

Jeff Chatterton: There are a lot of companies that may very well get three quarters of the way there on their own. They may get all the way there on their own, but it’s going to take them months and months of trial and error. In the meantime you’re going to continue to lose, by my estimate it’s approximately $680 a day on average, to the tourism sector across Africa right now, per agency.

Jason W. Hart: Wow. $680 per day! That’s a lot for small businesses in Africa. Are there any other statistics or facts that you’ve been able to dial into in terms of economic impact?

Jeff Chatterton: The numbers are still very shaky. We’re still running around trying to figure out what exactly the impact is. There have been a couple of informal surveys of safari operators, and they’re indicating between a 20% and a 70% reduction in volume depending on where you are on the continent. If you’re just a small to medium, and on the smaller side of medium, tour operator, if you’re doing $700,000 a year and you’re losing a third of that business, that’s $670 a day. That’s a lot of money. I know I don’t want to lose $670 a day. That money once it’s gone, it doesn’t come back. It’s not like it all sits there in a pool and then magically comes flowing in around March or April when things settle down. This is the kind of stuff that is going to have long-term consequential effects on the entire industry.

Jason W. Hart: As an expert looking at this situation, what is the one thing that someone really needs to consider when trying to manage his or her reputation during the time of confusion around Ebola?

Jeff Chatterton: It doesn’t matter whether you’re a tourism operator in New York or in Uganda or someone who’s working in the healthcare system or anywhere else. You need to understand people’s perspective and honor that. Just because you have a better handle or a better understanding or a better awareness doesn’t mean that they view you as an authority. It’s important that you meet their perception. Their perception is their reality. About the worst thing you can do is dismissing their reality as inconsequential. It doesn’t matter if they think Ebola is caused by GMO foods – if you just laugh it off and say it’s not caused by GMO foods, you’re not going to get anywhere.

You can find out more information about Jeff Chatterton and Checkmate Public Affairs at: