Do You Have a Crisis Communications Plan?

The pictures from Japan are utterly devastating. Destruction on an epic scale and the deaths of thousands of innocent people are hard to fully comprehend. My immediate thoughts go out to the families of loved ones who perished.

With this in mind, I ask the naïve question: could it happen here in North America? The short answer is a definite yes. Nowadays, the landscape of New Orleans still reels from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and California shares in the earthquake-prone ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ alongside Japan.

It could happen, often in the most unpredictable and tragic ways imaginable. Some ten years ago, I was working in Manhattan on property during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Witnessing firsthand the crisis management undertaken, the memories of this incredible situation and the approach taken by hotel staff are permanent reminders of the crucial nature of this task.

Nothing can fully prepare an ocean-front property for a full-scale tsunami. The loss of property is unimaginable. But at the same time, it is a fundamental responsibility of every hotel and resort operator to ensure the safety of his or her guests. Your property does not have to be located on the ocean to be subject to risk, either through natural disaster (earthquakes, for example), or manmade tragedy (such as a fire on property).

Planning is Mandatory

In the wake of the catastrophe in Japan, I quickly polled a dozen luxury properties to better understand their preparatory status (names withheld to protect their identities). Thankfully, all claimed to have a procedure for crisis management of some sort. However, only one had a clearly defined crisis communications plan – one that had not been reviewed in several years.

In this era of social media and otherwise rapid communication, I find this totally unacceptable. This is a project that should be assigned as a top priority to your Director of Marketing in conjunction with your Risk Management Team. It should be undertaken now, not later. Your failure as a general manager to act could cost you, both in terms of revenue management as well as long-term protection of asset value.
Crisis Communications Checklist

At a minimum, your crisis communications plan should include the following precautionary factors:

* A complete contact list for all senior staff, including home telephone and cell numbers, as well as personal (not property) email accounts
* A contact list for senior advertising and public relations staff
* Permission lists for your website, blog, Facebook account, Twitter account and any other company social media
* A series of protocols that identify who will be the spokesperson for your property and how communications are to be handled by staff during a crisis
* An incidence reporting structure to document issues and responses
* Training tips on dealing with the media
* Sample scripts for news releases and your social media outlets

Testing Your Communications Plan

We recommend a separate in-depth team meeting to address crisis situations. Apart from reviewing the plan, role play can form an important part of bringing the plan to life. As an example: Split into teams and assign each team hypothetical scenarios for which they have to manage. Have them follow your crisis communications plan, craft responses and note any suggestions that must be made to properly handle each specific event.

Your team will appreciate the challenges and be better equipped to supervise a difficult state of affairs. Most importantly, be sure to revisit your plan every year. An ideal reminder might be to coincide this with your annual budget planning.

The Crisis May Not Be on Property

Crises that affect your business may not occur on property. A regional crisis can be just as detrimental to your business. Some examples worthy of consideration: a flood or earthquake in your major feeder market, the closure of your local airport, or a breakdown of utilities such as electrical power or fresh water.

The Bottom Line

All of us will probably be faced with a crisis at one time or another. No matter what the ordeal, the situations are always stressful. How we as general managers deal with these situations are the true tests of our ability as hoteliers and communicators. Having a crisis communications plan reduces the risks that stem from such miscues. You owe it to yourself, your staff and your guests to be as prepared as possible.

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published on eHotelier on March 22, 2011)

Larry MogelonskyDo You Have a Crisis Communications Plan?