Delta’s claim that Covid is now an ‘ordinary seasonal virus’ comes back to bite it

The blunder has sparked a larger conversation about how companies should frame the pandemic.
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Francis Scialabba

4 min read

Between the champagne cheers and weird serenades, it seems some in the airline industry were eager to say goodbye to Covid restrictions the minute a federal judge struck down the mask mandate for public transportation last week. Perhaps no company seemed as eager as Delta Airlines, which described Covid as an “ordinary seasonal virus” in a statement released a few hours after the mandate was lifted.

“We are relieved to see the US mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as Covid-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus,” the original version of the statement read.

While the mask ruling is being appealed by the DOJ, the verdict on Delta’s choice of words was more concrete. As soon as the news made its way to Twitter, backlash ensued, with public health experts and government officials stepping in to challenge the statement.

A TikTok parody of Delta’s PR team noted that calling it a seasonal virus “lacked a certain element of truth” and predicted that it would end up taking it back. And it did. But it also sparked  a conversation on how companies frame the pandemic, which continues to infect more than 44,000 people in the US per day.

Why words matter

The morning after publication, Delta’s statement was amended with an editor’s note to say it had been “updated for clarity and accuracy,” but did not specifically say what had changed. The statement now reads “as Covid transitions to a more manageable respiratory virus—with better treatments, vaccines, and other scientific measures to prevent serious illness.”

Brand and content strategist Margot Bloomstein told us the original statement was “gaslighting to everyone in their audience that does follow the news and try to modify their behavior to stay safe.”

In March, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky predicted that Covid would “probably” become a seasonal virus. But as the agency’s acting principal deputy director, Debra Houry, recently told Politico, although we’re moving into the endemic stage, that “​​doesn’t mean that Covid is gone. That means we’ve learned to live with Covid, so it’s not disrupting our daily lives.”

Getting it right

Earlier this month, Delta CEO Ed Bastion spoke on a call with analysts and reporters, saying “we really do believe that the pandemic has moved to a seasonal virus.” Delta did not respond to Marketing Brew’s requests for comment.

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“I don’t blame the copywriter. I blame the corporate culture,” Bloomstein said. “A lot of that starts from the top, it starts from the CEO and the kind of messaging that they use, the tone that they set, the values that they espouse, but then it certainly filters down through the rest of the company.”

Josh Rangel, executive director and SVP of social media at Golin, agreed that the marketing and communications team shouldn’t be thrown under the bus either. He said he could see Delta leaders rushing to move past Covid after the airline industry’s last two years. “But as far as declaring it has moved to a seasonal virus, that, in my opinion…is poorly worded and wrong,” he said.

Rangel said the company would have been better off removing the “ordinary seasonal virus” sentence altogether. Bare minimum, he said, it should have been more well thought-out. “In my opinion, they could have led with a little bit more empathy,” adding they could have “put a little bit more thought into the way that they were communicating versus rushing not even 24 hours after the judge made that announcement or ruling” to put out a statement.

He and Bloomstein cited Uber and Alaska Airlines as better examples of how companies addressed the ruling, with both companies acknowledging the change while indicating their support for people who continue to take precautions. Of Alaska Airlines’ release, Bloomstein said, “It’s clear, it’s rational, and it’s nuanced. And I think that’s something that all businesses can embrace, even if they end up changing their policies around masking.”

Camilo La Cruz, chief strategy officer at sparks & honey, told us over email that “brands need to be light on their feet and avoid getting into rigid arguments because the next several months will bring surprises and may require new statements.”

All in all, Delta’s release seemed to some to be a lesson in “hurry up and wait.” Bloomstein predicts that “more companies will take a beat now, and say, ‘We should not make that same mistake. Let’s be more nuanced and specific and accurate with our language.’”

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