To prepare for the worst, crisis management needs to become second nature for hoteliers, and that starts with learning effective strategies.
“Alliteration in C” seemed to embody the recent presidential campaign: contentious, controversial, confrontational and cantankerous. Add one more: crisis. From wayward emails to ill-advised and embarrassing tweets and interviews, both campaigns dealt with their share of crisis situations, most of which were self-inflicted.
With these episodes still firmly entrenched and of recent vintage, it seems like a good time to revisit some thoughts about effectively managing a crisis.
First, it’s reasonable to ask: What exactly constitutes a crisis? In the public imagination, a crisis typically involves death, destruction (man-made or natural) and cataclysm—the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Tylenol tampering in the 1970s; all qualify as legitimate crises.
But allow me to offer a more general definition.
Crisis: Any occurrence that has the potential to disrupt the normal course of business or the functioning of a society. For example, bed bugs found in hotel rooms. And, yes, that may not be a life-and-death matter, but they are nonetheless crises and must be managed effectively.
Second, let’s stipulate that every crisis is different. Each has its own unique variations and personalities. Each crisis deserves a thoughtful approach, laser-focused on that one particular situation. In other words, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Most organizations, certainly companies and one-off properties in the hospitality industry, have some sort of crisis plan, but it’s a mistake to think such a plan is an all-encompassing user’s manual for crisis management.
Crisis plans are most helpful and effective when they delineate some basic steps and guiding principles (recommendations that are relevant to most any crisis situation) as opposed to trying to be a one-stop solution to the problem.
So what might some of these guiding principles be?
Anticipate crises whenever possible
Most crises fall into one of two categories: sudden or simmering. The 9/11 attacks are the most notorious example of the former. Not only could the attacks not have been anticipated, but the very notion of such acts, carried out as they were, seemed far-fetched at the time.
At the other end of the spectrum, the infamous Tailhook scandal at the Las Vegas Hilton in the early 1990s was a case study in a simmering crisis. Consider it a lesson from the “what can go wrong will go wrong” school. Tailhook could have been avoided by taking action in the early years of that raucous convention. Think ahead.
Get the facts, don’t speculate
This should be obvious, but it’s important to deal and communicate with the facts as they’re known at the time. The media, regulators, elected officials and others enjoy asking “what if” questions. It’s a slippery and dangerous slope, so don’t play.
Develop your messages, adjust as new facts emerge
Create a basic set of messages consisting of four or five key points that will serve as your general position during the crisis. These messages should be supplemented and supported by important sub-points, statistics, etc. As a corollary to the previous point, add to the messages as new facts come to light that you wish to communicate. This helps ensure that you are providing all the latest information at the earliest possible time.
Demonstrate concern, not responsibility (necessarily)
Within a big organization, there is typically a battle between the lawyers and the communication specialists (which the lawyers always win). The former wants to say nothing; the latter wants to say everything. There is a middle ground, but generally saying too much can cause more problems (legal, monetary) than saying too little. Expressing concern for legitimate victims of a crisis is always a plus; accepting responsibility when no such thing has been established (which won’t buy you sympathetic press in any regard) is something to be worked out with the legal team.
Be open and accessible (to a point); be honest
Hiding in one’s office during a crisis, or imposing news blackouts, was never a successful strategy for crisis management, but in today’s social media world it’s an even worse idea. But don’t confuse being accessible with having to answer every question or granting admission to private property to every news crew. You should answer what you want, with the messages you want to convey. Being honest can also mean saying “I don’t know,” or “I can’t answer that because we don’t comment on pending litigation.”
Get ahead of the story, no drips
It’s become trite, but no less relevant, to say that today’s media environment will ultimately capture and reveal everything. Don’t suffer a death by a thousand cuts. Get in front of the story; think of it as yanking off the Band-Aid in one shot rather than little by little.
Use third-party advocates
Naturally, you will want to defend yourself and get your position out during a crisis; everyone expects you to do that. From a credibility standpoint, having outside individuals or groups that are willing to speak on your behalf carries a great deal of weight with all your stakeholders.
Ultimately, you want to fix the problem. This requires a full team encompassing finance, operations, legal counsel and other disciplines. The Tylenol situation resulted in the introduction of the tamper-proof containers that are ubiquitous today. A rash of skyjackings in the 1960s led to security screenings at airports (however flawed the execution, it is a solution).
Here’s wishing you a crisis-free 2017.
Marc Grossman is a senior communications executive who served as senior VP, corporate affairs, for Hilton Hotels Corporation, where he was responsible for all global corporate communications, investor/financial relations, public affairs, brand/marketing public relations, crisis communications and internal communications. He also held senior positions with three leading international communications firms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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