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Dealing with a crisis

17 June 2005
Dealing with a crisis

Things don't always run to plan in any industry, and the hospitality sector is no exception. Sadly, the media thrives on bad news, so if something goes wrong within your organisation you are likely to get enquiries. But how should you deal with the media in a crisis?

Pre-empt the problems

Preparation is everything, and all organisations should have some basic provision in place in case of an emergency. In fact, good planning around potential issues can help prevent them becoming a full blown crisis.

In a hotel, for instance, the list might include the following:

•Building is affected by fire, flood or storm
•Food poisoning or virus outbreak is linked to hotel
•Serious crime (eg assault, rape theft or murder) is committed on the premises
•Guest is injured or killed using hotel facilities
•Vehicle crashes into the building
•Suicide takes place in a room
•Spa treatment causes guest(s) a serious allergic reaction
•Sudden death or disablement of key member of staff (eg GM or Head Chef)

Brainstorm possible events and rate them in order of likelihood. The more likely they are, the more it pays to do some advance thinking on how you might deal with them if they were to arise.

Consider what provision is in place to prevent or minimise the impact of these crises: for example, fire safety and guest evacuation procedures for the first point, health and safety rules for the second and fourth, security provision for the third, and so on.

If you're not convinced that your organisation has sufficient protection in these areas, act now before any problems arise.

Establish crisis procedure

Speed is of the essence in dealing with the media repercussions of a crisis, so it's important to put in place some firm procedures detailing what staff should and shouldn't do immediately after the event. Ideally, this should be incorporated into staff training and encapsulated in a procedures manual.

During the crisis, internal communication to all staff is vital. A journalist contacting the hotel will ask the first person who answers the phone what's going on, rather than asking for the specific press contact.

If it's a major event, journalists could even turn up on site, so monitoring who enters and leaves the premises becomes vital.

It's therefore important to reinforce to staff that media enquiries should be referred to the appropriate people. They should be helpful and responsive to journalists, but under no circumstances should they attempt to answer questions themselves.

One of your staff should act as an internal communicator in the event of a crisis, charged with the task of keeping all other members of the organisation aware of what is going on and how the organisation intends to respond to any media interest. Customer-facing staff will also need to be briefed on how to field enquiries from the general public.

A crisis group, made up of your company spokespeople, Managing Director or General Manager and appropriate representatives from your customer services, operations and marketing teams, should also be established. All members should have each other's home and mobile numbers so that they can keep in contact 24 hours a day.

If you retain a PR consultancy, phone them immediately for advice. If you don't, and the issue is serious, consider briefing one as soon as possible.

As soon as a crisis happens, the committee should meet to gather information and ensure any communications deliver a consistent and credible message.

Dealing with the media

In a crisis, it's always advisable to face the media as quickly as possible. As soon as sufficient information is available, the committee should draft a reactive statement to tackle initial enquiries.

Known as a holding statement, this is sent to journalists on request only and is designed to give basic information about an incident and is crucial to ensure journalists have the right facts. If the media takes the word of by-standers or other third party sources there's a danger of exaggeration or misinformation that could compound the problem.

As a rule, the holding statement should ideally address the following questions:

1. What happened, where and when?
2. Who is affected and how badly?
3. How did it happen?
4. What are you going to do about it?

Only provide information that you know to be 100% accurate - in particular do not speculate about causes unless you're absolutely sure.

It's important to monitor coverage as it appears, and consider issuing rebuttals if the information provided is incorrect.

Dealing with interviews

Sometimes a holding statement will be sufficient to de-fuse a crisis situation. However, if the story develops and there's evidence of wrong doing, the media may ask for an interview.

This is where preparation becomes paramount, as the journalist is likely to ask some taxing questions. Having control of all the facts and knowing what you need to communicate for the good of your organisation is vital.

It's worth listing a handful of simple messages to get across in the course of the interview. Also think about how these messages could be illustrated with past examples of good practice by your organisation.

Anticipating your audience's concerns and pre-empting what questions are going to be asked can also help you establish robust responses. The journalist will most likely be fixated on questions like "How did this happen?", "Who is to blame?" and "What are you going to do about it?"

However, some journalists may also twist questions to make them more personal - for example "Wouldn't you be upset if …" or "What would you think if that happened to you?"

Be ready for these questions - answer them honestly and show empathy, but also be sure to communicate a positive. For example, "I completely sympathise with the victims - it's a dreadful thing to happen, but we are doing X to remedy the situation for them OR Y to ensure this never happens again."

After the event

When the crisis dies down, you'll need to get to work on a recovery plan. Evaluate coverage from the incident and establish what audiences need to be reassured, and which key influencers (eg journalists, tourist boards, Health & Safety bodies etc) need to be targeted to help rebuild your reputation.

From this, you can plan activity - for instance, site visits for influencers, community stories and re-launch events - to build bridges and recover your image.

Neil Coffey is a consultant with travel PR experts BANC Communications. He can be contacted on neil.coffey@banc.co.uk.

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