Q: I was having a conversation with a friend at a dinner party, about the recent spate of disaster stories in big hotels; like Premier Inn paying compensation for a scalding shower and Travelodge accusing a dad of being a paedophile. Talk inevitably turned to my hotel and what we would do if something like this happened and I am ashamed to say I’d never really thought about it before. I think perhaps I need some kind of strategy in place should the worst happen?
What you need is a crisis management policy, which is a formalised plan for dealing with potential reputation disasters. Once developed, it should be the blueprint for the processes and procedures you undertake in any scenario, and can also be used as a formal tool within your staff training.
A good crisis policy starts with risk assessment, which is used to identify and put right any potential risks within the business. Prevention is the best crisis media policy, can of course be idealistic; however ensuring you have done everything in your power to reduce risk is essential to a) reduce the likelihood of needing to implement your policy, and b) minimise any potential reputation damage should the worst happen. A good risk assessment for example will identify that scalding water could be a problem, and put in place routine maintenance procedures to check water temperatures, water pressure etc. This in turn can inform the training for the housekeeping staff, who spend the most time within each individual room, and then the maintenance staff too.
Even with the best risk assessment in the world, it is impossible to be completely risk-free or to prevent anything at all happening, either through human error or system failures. As such, there may be a day when the worst does happen, and a formalised policy will be the lynchpin of well-handled campaign that can leave you smelling of roses, so to speak. A good crisis policy does not focus on what could potentially go wrong in the way risk assessment does, but instead how you will react. You can do some of this work yourself, but it is also worth consulting a crisis expert who can help you formalise the plan for maximum effectiveness.
At minimum your policy should contain:
Your formalised complaints procedure; how and where do you invite complaints, what is the process for dealing with them and who should they be escalated to. Although some complaints can be dealt with by front-of-house staff, such as not having a spare blanket in the room, or having cold toast at breakfast, your plan needs to set out how to identify the severity of the complaint, and when and how these should be escalated. Not only this, but it should also formalise how and at what stage each process happens; what do you need to know up front, how will you investigate it, when and what will you communicate to the customer etc. This is vital to a) ensure that the complaint is dealt with properly, and not by well-meaning staff who might accidentally make the whole situation worse, and b) to ensure that the customer feels listened to every step of the way. It is worth noting that even when you formalise this policy, you may not have opportunity to deal with a complaint before the customer decides to alert the media, so you also need a contingency of how to contact an individual if the complaint comes in indirectly.
Your statement policy; what you will say and how you will say it, and importantly what you won’t say too. Having watched many crises spiral out of control, it is often because well-meaning employees wade in, offer an opinion and trigger a fall-out they aren’t trained to predict or handle. Knowing who is responsible for saying what is essential to ensuring good, clear communication around any issue.
Your shutdown policy; often, the knee-jerk reaction is to make an immediate statement, but this usually means you don’t have all the facts or a clear answer, which will invariably make the whole situation worse. While time isn’t on your side and things do need to be dealt with as a priority, you need to have a shut-down policy of the steps you will go through to handle it and how and when you will issue a statement. It is also beneficial to take responses offline and out of the public spotlight so as not to invite further backlash or repercussions.
Your crisis expert; crisis management is not your expertise, and when you are handling a potential reputation disaster, a few thousand pounds on a crisis expert will be money well-spent. Trust me. In some cases, your insurance company will even pay the fees for that expert, as it is in their best interests to minimise damage. If you already have a PR agency, it is likely they will have a crisis expert, but if not, look for someone independent and skilled.
This is a very rough and ready guide, but appointing an expert to help is the best thing to do. You may never need it, but better to have it gathering dust on a shelf than not have it in place at all.