As the years go by, it seems that more and more, hotels must re-design themselves as it relates to managing communications when faced with a major public crisis. Hotels encounter crisis of varying proportions on a daily basis. Some are of low level significance and can be handled internally, with a minimal amount of communication, written or verbal. Some are so serious, that advanced planning and preparation are not only prudent, but also necessary to ensure quick action under stress. It goes without saying that often the seriousness of the crisis goes hand in hand with the urgency of the timing of the response, the level of public exposure, and the need to act decisively from the start. It is helpful to look at the challenge in phases.
Phase One: Evaluate Internal Capabilities and Preparedness
The most important element of meeting the challenge of any crisis, is the efficiency with which the actual crisis is handled. The most important element of handling the public perception of that crisis, however, is having the right person or people in place to direct communication relative to the crisis while cultivating positive public opinion. Every hotel, regardless of size, must ask the question: Do we have the capabilities, i.e., the staff, skills, tools, and contacts to direct communications relative to the crisis? An initial internal evaluation of these capabilities might look something like this:
Does the hotel have the manpower and economic resources to hire an employee dedicated to communications and public relations?
Does this person speak both the language(s) of the region and the language of the international media (English)?
Has this person received crisis communications training?
Has this person received public relations training that qualifies him or her to effectively deal with the public and the media?
Does this person have the maturity to operate efficiently and professionally under extreme stress?
Has this person been exposed to crisis in a professional environment and if so, did the evaluation of his or her performance meet the standards of excellence required?
If the answer to any of the above is “no,” it may be time to consider whether a communications firm should be consulted either to perform the internal training, or to be on call for crisis eventualities in order to direct the communication at that time.
Phase Two: Implement Key Steps
Here are some key steps that can be organized by internal public relations staff or by external public relations/communications specialists:
Have a plan relative to all serious crises which can be reasonably anticipated, including terrorism, accident, natural disaster, fire, in short anything that has to do with guest or staff safety. Plans with regard to other issues that can have a negative economic or perceptual impact on the hotel are also very useful tools.
Rehearse the plan by creating mock exercises and evaluate staff accordingly.
Update the plan as experience indicates, but always at least annually. An independent audit of the plan by a Communications firm is advisable.
The first 24 hours of a safety crisis is critical. If feasible, get top-level management to the scene immediately for a site inspection and initial press conference. An internal staff member or a Communications firm should be accessible for this purpose 24 hours a day.
Issue initial statement, always demonstrating compassion for victims, if any, and set out concrete steps that indicate the way in which the hotel is responding. Limit your spokesperson to one, if at all possible to avoid contradiction.
Utilize a pre-established crisis center and enable pre-established action teams.
Set up an 800 (numero verde) number for special audiences (immediate family of guests, press, government officials, etc.)
To the extent necessary, hold daily press briefings at or near the crisis scene. Keep all other key audiences updated daily — employees, environmentalists, and government representatives.
Dispatch Communications or Public Relations representatives to crisis center and scene, and ensure they have optimum telecommunications equipment to keep in touch with key organization executives and all other interested audiences.
Phase Three: Re-Evaluate and Seek Assistance if Appropriate
Of course, this is just a rough outline to give an idea of the scope of the problem and solution. It is intended to be a departing point for discussion internally and/or with Communications specialists. It is, however, the one area in which advanced preparation is CRITICAL to the well-being of guests and staff and the future economic viability of the hotel.