If there’s one thing I know after 40 years handling public relations and communications for hotels, destinations, resorts and attractions, it’s that crises are not the exception. They are the rule.
Hardly a year passed during my career in which I wasn’t called to respond to a crisis. Here’s what I’ve learned:
» Be prepared. There’s a good reason why this is the Boy Scout motto. If you prepare and plan for a crisis, you’ll be in a better position to recover more quickly. That means having crisis communications and operational plans in place and exercising them annually. They should cover a lot of bases, including likely crises, your crisis team (who does what and how to reach them), key contacts (management, employees, media, community leaders), available resources for various scenarios, and what to keep in mind. A crisis communications plan requires organizational buy-in, from top to bottom. Without that, you’ll have a second crisis once a disaster occurs.
» Research. When alerted to a crisis, find out what’s really happening and how it’s affecting your organization, customers, associates and their families, community and stakeholders. A lot of false rumors circulate in a crisis.
» It takes a village to respond to a crisis. Inform others who are responsible and have them pass the word or take action.
» People forgive Mother Nature more easily than they do human nature. Crises born of Mother Nature (wildfires, storms, floods, earthquakes, disease) often have less of an impact on business than those of human nature (crime, scandal, mechanical failure, human error, economic downturn, bad or misunderstood management decisions, government intervention, consumer activism, rioting). Each calls for a different response.
» Each crisis is different. Some occur suddenly, others smolder. Some are perceptual and others just bizarre. Your team should be prepared to respond flexibly to each situation.
» When a crisis is occurring, stop promoting. It appears mercenary and wastes resources. Instead, focus on responding to the crisis and helping others (the guests, employees, community) affected by it.
» Honesty is the best policy. Be candid and honest with your messaging. You don’t have to explain everything that happened. Some things are better responded to by public authorities (police, fire department). There may be legal reasons not to respond. Regardless, whatever you say should be truthful. If you can’t respond, say “I don’t know” (if that’s the case) or “I can’t say,” and explain why. Or, direct the reporter to someone who can answer the question. Become a trusted source by communicating regularly and accurately. “No comment” is an unacceptable response.
» What you do and how you respond to a crisis counts a lot more than what you say. Be caring, empathetic, generous and magnanimous. Care and empathy count as much as competence, commitment and honesty combined. In high-stress situations, nonverbal actions account for 75 percent of messages received.
» Once the crisis has ended, move on. Go back to promoting your destination and don’t remind others of the crisis. If they ask, answer honestly and completely, but don’t bring up the subject. Destinations normally see a severe decline in tourism for a month after a disaster. Business travel recovers in one to three months, while leisure travel recovers in three to six months.
» Always remember that this, too, shall pass. Do not let a crisis become an obsession that negatively affects your decisions, sustains the crisis or deepens it in the minds of your public. Somewhere, people have not heard about it or have already forgotten about it.
JOHN POIMIROO, POIMIROO & PARTNERS, HAS DIRECTED MARKETING AND PUBLIC RELATIONS FOR SKI AREAS, ATTRACTIONS, HOTELS, RESORTS, DESTINATIONS, CALIFORNIA STATE TOURISM AND NATIONAL PARKS. DURING HIS LONG CAREER, HE COORDINATED RESPONSE FOR MORE THAN 40 MAJOR DISASTERS AND CRISES, INCLUDING COUNSELING THE NEW YORK TRAVEL INDUSTRY FOLLOWING THE 9/11 TERROR ATTACKS.