You may not like what he did or what he said about what he did, but you have to give David Letterman credit for the way he managed the public discussion about his philandering and claim he was being blackmailed. And believe it or not, there’s a lesson in that for the hotel industry.
On the day his alleged blackmailer was arrested, Letterman beat everyone to the punch by revealing the extortion attempt on his TV show, “Late Show with David Letterman.” Moreover, he confessed to having sex with his staff members, the secret his blackmailer hoped to exploit.
Four days later, Letterman revisited the topic on his show by offering public apologies to his staff and admitting he’d have to work hard to save his marriage.
By taking the lead and admitting to his actions, Letterman effectively dominated the public discussion that followed. Media commentators (and even people like you and me) couldn’t help but refer to his characterizations when offering their opinions.
In crisis communications, this is called taking the information initiative. When done with sincerity, it rarely fails to win the public’s hearts and minds. Not only did Letterman present his case first, which enabled him to characterize the situation before anyone else could, he also expressed remorse, which won him a degree of sympathy.
Had he waited until the story broke in the news media, Letterman would’ve been relegated to a weak defensive posture and his comments perceived as nothing more than an attempt to spin the truth, as typically practiced by celebrities and politicians when they’re caught doing something unseemly.
To the contrary, Letterman demonstrated transparency by creating the impression he was being open and honest, even though he gave few details. In doing so, he properly deferred to the investigating authority (the Manhattan district attorney), who outlined the allegations during a news conference the next day.
Joanna Weiss, writing in her Viewer Discretion column in the Boston Globe, said Letterman’s approach was smart PR—addressing the situation directly, self-flagellating gently, softening the blows with self-deprecating humor.
In an interview with The New York Times, crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall applauded Letterman for reporting the threatened blackmail to police and admitting his role to his audience. Letterman, could’ve been seen as a predator; now he’s seen as a victim of extortion, Dezenhall said.
The hotel connection
What does this have to do with the hotel industry?
Consider the way Marriott International and Wyndham Worldwide responded to allegations an alleged stalker secretly videotaped ESPN sports commentator Erin Andrews through guestroom peepholes during stays at the Marriott Nashville at Vanderbilt University and Ramada Conference Center in Milwaukee.
Pursing a classic PR strategy, Marriott and Wyndham avoided taking responsibility or speaking directly about the issue. Marriott issued a statement saying the company takes the security and privacy of its guests very seriously, and it has been cooperating with authorities during the investigation. Wyndham, which franchises the Ramada brand, was quoted by ABC News as saying the safety and privacy of hotels guests is of utmost importance and the company was looking into the matter.
Neither company addressed the apparent security breaches that enabled the alleged perpetrator, 47-year-old Michael David Barrett of Westmont, Illinois, to learn Andrews’ guestroom numbers during her stays and get access to her rooms so he could tamper with the peepholes.
Unfortunately for Marriott and Wyndham, the illicit videotaping first was reported months before the perpetrator’s arrest, making their statements sound a bit disingenuous, given they had plenty of time to determine what went wrong and at least begin to address the problem.
Lessons from Letterman
What lesson could be applied from Letterman?
Instead of staying mute about the topic until prompted by the news media, Marriott and Wyndham could have spoken up months earlier and warned the public a heretofore unknown security weakness in guestroom peepholes had been identified and they were taking the initiative to correct those defects permanently (thereby setting an example for the entire industry).
Both companies could have offered interim solutions, such as covering the peepholes from inside the guestroom using tape, as advocated by Peter Greenberg, CBS travel editor.
At least Joe McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, sounded a proactive note when he told the Associated Press his organization sent an advisory to members asking them to review all their guest privacy procedures and all their security procedures to make sure their staff (members) are doing everything they should be doing.
Thanks to YouTube, an illicit videotape can be posted for the world to see how hotel guests might be victimized by a Peeping Tom. With the horse out of the barn, it’s futile for hotel companies to hide behind empty expressions of concern. The world has become transparent, whether we like it or not.
It was too late for the companies to claim they were looking into the matter. They should’ve been prepared to say what they were doing to protect the security of their guests in the wake of the Erin Andrews episode.
The Letterman lesson also could be applied to the lawsuit against Hilton Worldwide by Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which alleges two former Starwood employees hired by Hilton—Ross Klein and Amar Lalvani—stole more than 100,000 electronic documents in the clearest imaginable case of corporate espionage and used that information to develop Hilton’s Denizen Hotels lifestyle brand.
Hilton initially issued an angry denial, saying the company believed the lawsuit to be without merit and pledging to vigorously defend itself and proceed with development of the Denizen brand. However, after it was slapped with a federal grand jury subpoena, Hilton halted Denizen development and put the brand’s executives and about 30 members of the company’s luxury and lifestyle development team on administrative leave, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Letterman might well have suggested a different approach. The time to act would’ve been earlier this year, before the lawsuit filing, when Hilton took the extraordinary action of returning eight boxes containing thousands of Starwood documents and electronic files found in the homes and offices of former Starwood employees who had been hired to work on the Denizen brand.
According to the Washington Post, the boxes contained a letter from Hilton’s lawyers to Starwood’s general counsel explaining, while the material didn’t seem all that sensitive, Hilton was returning it in an abundance of caution. Clearly, the Hilton legal team recognized the documents never should’ve been taken from Starwood, the rightful owner.
This would have been the time for Hilton’s top brass to stand up, apologize to Starwood, voluntarily put the Denizen brand on hold and fire the executives who lifted the documents. Hilton could have offered to open the books on the matter and make amends to Starwood, potentially avoiding litigation and prosecution.
The conscience that prompted Hilton’s lawyers to return the boxes of Starwood documents apparently wasn’t compelling enough for the company’s senior leaders to take the logical next step.
A difficult year
This has been a bad public relations year for the hotel industry. Hyatt took a beating when it fired about 100 housekeepers at three Boston hotels, replacing them with less-expensive workers from an outsourcing agency. The housekeepers charged the company duped them into training their replacements by saying they just would fill in during vacations.
Then there was the case of the Marriott franchisee in Stamford, Connecticut, who blamed a guest after she was raped in front of her children in a parking garage. The franchisee asserted the attack was the guest’s fault because she failed to exercise due care for her own safety … and proper use of her senses and facilities.
Following a barrage of bad publicity and scathing comments from a slew of bloggers, Marriott apparently got the franchisee to back off and issued a public apology, according to Lodging Hospitality’s editor, Ed Watkins, who commented about it in his Front Desk Blog entitled “What Was Marriott Thinking?”
“I’m not sure where the law falls in this case, but it was a huge PR blunder for the franchisee to adopt this tactic,” he said. “Without knowing for sure, I’ll blame the lawyers.”
From my experience, it wasn’t the fault of Marriott corporate public relations team, which works diligently to protect the company’s good name. By the same token, the way Hilton responded to the espionage accusations and the way Marriott and Wyndham handled the Erin Andrews fiasco all reflect the predilection of executives and their lawyers to focus more on their legal defense than winning in the court of public opinion. Their guidance to PR typically is to avoid saying anything that could be used against them in court.
In a world that’s becoming ever more transparent, companies should worry as much about their reputations as they do about the strength of their legal position. Hotel executives need to tilt the balance back to PR when managing crises. They no longer hold all the cards when it comes to doling out information, and hiding behind traditional defensive comments won’t cut it.
As Letterman might say, enough with the stupid card tricks.
Rich Roberts is a 33-year communications veteran who has worked for two of the world’s largest lodging franchisors, Wyndham Worldwide and Choice Hotels International, two marketing agencies, Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Company, and the daily newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa. Now he’s affiliated with Ferri & Partners, a full-service public relations agency specializing in marketing luxury products and services in North America (www.ferriandpartners.com).