When New York City was in the thick of its bedbug crisis in 2010, I’ll admit I avoided the city at all costs. I tried to dodge business trips there and certainly didn’t plan any vacations to the Big Apple. Why would I want to willingly subject myself to a high risk of contracting itchy, annoying little mites that someone else left behind?
And it wasn’t just me. That year, 12 percent of U.S. hotel reviews on TripAdvisor referenced bedbugs. Concerns led to an increased perception of risk from tourists, which altered their decision-making. Eventually, the city itself got involved, launching education programs to help tourists understand how to mitigate their risk for contracting bedbugs, as well as how to spot and deal with them.
Unfortunately, not every hospitality company can count on a local government to bail it out. As a PR professional working in brand reputation and crisis communications, it’s up to you to provide the appropriate crisis management when unforeseen problems occur. And good issues management is not only saying the right things, but also staying away from the wrong ones.
Here are three phrases that could wreck your business in times of crisis — and what you should say instead.
- “No comment.”
This is a repeat offender in the PR world. When you say “no comment,” your audience hears “guilty as charged.” If you truly are legally bound not to say anything, it’s better to respond to reporters or other stakeholders with a simple response, such as “While we can’t offer specifics, we can tell you what our policy is.” The media can and will quote your “no comment.” So why not take the opportunity to state what the company’s policy is on the situation?
- “I just want my life back.”
You may recognize this as a direct quote — largely because it came straight from the mouth of BP’s former CEO after its oil spill crisis in 2010. While BP is not in the hospitality space, this serves as an important lesson for any industry: His comment showed complete disregard for the people affected and, instead, focused on how the spill had impacted his personal life. (It was also a grossly poor choice of words, considering many people did lose their lives and livelihoods as a result of the spill.) Many BP employees were angry and refused to talk to the press, which only made things worse.
It made BP seem discreditable at best and sleazy at worst. Instead, the company should have acknowledged its mistake and been authentic and honest with the public about the steps it was taking to repair the situation.
- “It wasn’t me.”
No company actually makes a statement in those words, but the sentiment is all too clear in many companies’ crisis messaging. To go back to the BP example, the company first attempted to deflect blame to Transocean, the company that owned the rig. Then, it hedged facts to claim the spill was around 1,000 barrels a day — five times less than it ended up being.
Audiences can smell disingenuous behavior from a mile away. It behooves you to be transparent and authentic from the start so you don’t have to backtrack later. Tell your key audiences what you know to be true at that time. Then, promise to update them — and hold to that promise.
An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure
You may not be able to prevent your company’s crises, but you can prepare for them. If you are a hotel brand, it's important to have a solid disaster protocol in place. If you own a restaurant, you need to know what your response will be if you receive food poisoning complaints. Consider who your key audiences are and how you’ll communicate directly with those people should a crisis occur. Those are — or can be — your biggest advocates or detractors, so it’s most important that what you do resonates with them.
Look across your industry. What are some possible crisis scenarios? Be prepared for those. Have your talking points prepared as best you can before anything happens. You can then spend more time really working through the finer points so you can keep yourself focused on the storm.
I remember a time in the industry when the legal department would say, “No way are you allowed to apologize because that shows guilt.” Today, that mentality has swung the other direction. Communicators are saying, “Wait a minute. Recognizing that the situation has caused an issue for people, we must act and connect with our audiences on a real and empathetic level.”
That goes a long way — as long as you handle the response professionally.