Timeliness is the first rule in crisis communication
Timeliness is the first rule in crisis communication
02 NOVEMBER 2017 7:30 AM

People want answers about hotel security after the Mandalay Bay shooting in Las Vegas, but it isn’t worth risking the safety of guests.

It's become almost an article of faith that when a crisis envelops a hotel property or company, particularly one involving bodily harm, the organization issues a statement asserting that “the safety and security of our guests is our highest priority.” A word or two might change, but something along these lines is the go-to position on every “crisis” from a major natural or man-made disaster to the most routine slip-and-fall.

Let me be clear. This is exactly the sentiment that should be communicated in a business that relies on the trust and confidence of the traveling public. And among the first rules of crisis communications: Be timely with responses, and demonstrate concern and empathy—though not necessarily responsibility, which the lawyers would prevent anyway. While the “safety and security” phrase has been used so often as to be considered almost trite and boilerplate, there's really not much else that can be said, especially in the absence of other pertinent information.

But that brings us to the key word in the statement: security. When tragedy strikes in our industry—and, to be sure, other industries as well—as surely as night follows day, a property's or company's security procedures will be scrutinized, questioned and, yes, second-guessed. Every hospitality company has had their turn in this barrel. The mass shooting in Las Vegas is only the most recent example. At Hilton, the infamous Tailhook situation in Las Vegas ultimately boiled down to whether the hotel provided adequate security to its female guests. Other companies have seen their security protocols looked into after terrorist attacks.

As an industry, or course, no event epitomized the questioning of guest security more than the 9/11 attacks. Those of us on the communications front lines knew that the media, advocacy groups and elected officials would home in on what procedures were currently in place to protect guests and, more to the point, what new steps would be taken to ensure guest safety.

A few days after the New York and Washington attacks, a group of communications leaders representing the five or six largest lodging companies convened via conference call to discuss potential responses and a plan to address the inevitable security-related inquiries. One public relations executive advocated strongly for a detailed response, saying that in order to maintain consumer confidence, it was important to lay out all the various steps—and in the greatest detail—that hotel properties were taking to maximize guest safety during this turbulent time and into the future. Anything less, she argued, would indicate that hotels didn't really know what to do to prevent such tragedies and that our industry was taking a “business-as-usual” approach.

This position—which, thankfully, was never adopted by any company—was faulty on a couple of basis levels. First and foremost, while we want and need our guests to feel safe in our properties, it goes against all common sense to splash the details of one's security measures in the pages of the newspaper. Why give the bad guys a blueprint for how to skirt your security procedures?

Imagine asking the U.S. Secret Service for a detailed plan on what they do to protect the president at a public event or in a motorcade. After all, isn't it the public's right to know what's being done to guard the safety of the chief executive? The Secret Service's response to such a question would be both rapid and unprintable.

Secondly, outlining all your security procedures is a slippery slope. Where does it end? The fact is, an operator can publish a list of 50 things the hotel is doing to protect guests, but when the next crisis hits, a reporter or government official would ask if you were doing X, Y or Z (numbers 51, 52 and 53), and if not, why not? Why a list of only 50 procedures; why not 100? Trying to comprehensively communicate every single security procedure is a fool's mission, not to mention one rife with unintended consequences.

A cynical media and divisive political environment lead to a quest for easy answers to complicated problems. When the airline industry was hit with a rash of hijackings in the 1960s, the screening of passengers was put into place. The 9/11 attacks, coupled with other terrorism incidents, led to the creation of the TSA and even more stringent screening and security at airports. One can argue that waiting in security lines and taking off shoes has become routine and accepted—albeit grudgingly—by travelers. But airport terminals, boarding gates and airplane—as opposed to hotels—are not places of public accommodation, accessible to and desired by people who want to meet for a quick drink after work, attend a meeting or convention, or stay several days on vacation going in and out of the property. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The balancing of security with convenience and an enjoyable guest experience is a difficult proposition and deserves the attention and best thinking possible.

The horrific shooting at the outdoor concert in Las Vegas has, once again, brought hotel security to the forefront. Certainly, lodging property and company executives are looking at operational changes and improvements to enhance guest comfort and confidence levels. This is as it should be. Part of a positive guest experience is feeling safe and secure, as the boilerplate statement says.

Maximizing hotel security is, and always will be, a key subject for owners, operators and franchisees everywhere. But where a detailed analysis doesn’t belong is in the newspaper.

Marc Grossman is a senior communications executive who served as SVP, 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 mgrossman6@msn.com.

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