Ms. Stoga

Social Media & Relationship Marketing

Preparing a Crisis Communication Plan.... The Time is Now!

By Susan Stoga, Principal, Carson Stoga

Like all industries, the hospitality industry has its share of crisis...and as anyone who has worked the hospitality front lines know, a crisis seldom happens from 9 to 5 when everyone from general manager to controller to sales manager are on-site. Indeed, most "situations", whether great or small, happen in the wee hours when the newest front desk clerk seems to be in charge.

That's why it is so important to develop a sound crisis communication plan and keep it a vital part of operations and any new hire programs. Just as associates learn reservations systems, sign up for health care or learn about their 401k, this plan should be on the high on the agenda. While no crisis is ever the same, being prepared, in a general sense, will have a positive impact on any post-crisis quarterbacking.

There are a variety of crisis situations that can arise and the truth of the matter is that a solid crisis communication strategy may be the only way to safeguard your brand's reputation and maintain a safe and reputable image. The impact a crisis can have on your ability to service customers and grow your business varies from the loss of a day's work to the loss of your business altogether. Whether it is product malfunction, assault, fire, labor disputes, kidnapping, hostage situations or a natural disaster, the following procedures should get you going on the path to preparedness.

Getting Started

Make certain that all associates know how to contact the MOD in the event of any unexpected or unusual circumstance.

More importantly, create an environment that encourages the flow of communication at any time of day, or night. Sometimes, an issue that may not seem significant can have significant consequences and as a result, over-communication is better than no communication. Many situations never morph into full blown crises because they were handled at the outset, instead of allowing them to come to a boiling point.

Next, create a plan that allows your team to respond and communicate with one another in an effective, rational and systematic way should a crisis situation arise and . . . . don't forget to practice. Keep a list of home or cell numbers at an easily accessible point that the MOD can reach.

First things first, assemble a team and dole out member responsibilities. Participants should include marketing or public relations personnel or counsel, human resources managers and department heads. Create flow charts that outline a clear chain of command among team members and don't stop there... have a backup plan. The following responsibilities should be designated on the flow chart:

Every member of the team should be able to talk to other team members at the drop of a hat, even in the event of a power outage. There may be no means to call one another, so assign a rendezvous point. Create lists of critical office and cell phone numbers, fax and e-mail contact information within the team in addition to direct contact information for important off-property individuals such as property owners, police and fire officials, federal authorities, lawyers, clients and customers. Assign one person to update contact information and responsibility changes as they come up. Another member should update other staff members in the company and set up drills to make sure everyone is clear on their role.

Managing media inquiries and understanding the media

It is extremely important to designate one spokesperson to handle media inquiries. The one or two individuals who are solely responsible for speaking to the media on the company's behalf at a time of crisis need to make sure that they speak in a calm, reasonable and unified voice. Always let your spokesperson do the talking! Because the ultimate goal is to speak with one unified voice, choosing the right spokesperson is key.

Your spokesperson should:

To assure reasoned, effective communication with the media, provide training for your spokespeople from professionals who provide crisis communication planning for a living. For instance, Carson Stoga Communications, a public relations firm who regularly deals with the media, often work with hospitality clients to provide media training and create such plans.

To help prepare your spokesperson, draft a Q&A with possible questions that may arise in a crisis situation to guide them during interviews and help them to create written statements for distribution to the press. Q&A's should be drafted and carefully reviewed with management, legal and financial advisors to confirm the message is agreed on by all important parties within the organization. Make sure to include "most dreaded" questions and prepare a straightforward response.

As with all investigating authorities, the media has a job to do. In crisis situations it is best to be forthcoming and respond promptly to media calls and interviews. If you do not cooperate, work against the media and make it difficult for them to do their job, chances are the result will be unfair, unbalanced coverage. Providing a clear understanding of the facts will reassure the public and help maintain the reputation of the company and the brand.

Responses like "no comment" should be avoided at all costs. These responses convey assumptions of guilt, intrigue and superiority and may be a cause for the media to continue to hound your organization until they get an answer. By not making a comment you prevent yourself from framing the story and eliminate the possibility for the public to hear the facts. If the facts of the situation are not confirmed, the media should be notified that every effort is being made to secure all information and they should be updated regularly. Because the information your spokesperson presents will be communicated to the public and has the potential to be distorted, they should document what was said to help clear up any confusion internally after a story runs.

Planning Ahead

A crisis is no time to try and begin forging friendships and influencing people. By getting to know local media contacts personally, delivering and updating them on the state of your organizations affairs, they may have reason to spare you any added frustration during these difficult times. If you nurture an environment of open communication and trust should a crisis arise, you assure that the true facts are communicated to the public rapidly and efficiently. Public relations firms can help you regularly communicate and establish good relationships with key media in and around your community. You can also have your spokesperson regularly update them to enhance these relationships. Remember to pick up the phone; e-mails and press releases cannot connect with a journalist like "old fashioned" communication can.

Crisis management is a field unto itself, and the best way to be prepared is to work with an expert to create a program that fits your company's needs. Communicating effectively with the media may be the key factor to help you manage a crisis successfully but there are other players with whom you will want to communicate with including current and future clients, staff and management personnel, stockholders or shareholders, local public officials and authorities, key vendors and the families and associates of the victims of a crisis. Any comprehensive plan will include a strategy for communication with all stakeholders.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day there WILL be a crisis. Advance preparation is the key to surviving and thriving.

Susan Stoga has 19 years of integrated marketing and public relations experience in corporate and agency environments. Her expertise is in branding and developing strategies that achieves sales and financial goals for clients such as KhiMetrics, Gemstone Resorts International and National Pasteurized Eggs. Ms. Stoga served as executive director of corporate communications for Enesco Corporation. She has managed corporate public relations programs for Hyatt Hotels and Evans, Inc. She has held management positions with Golin/Harris Communications and Hill and Knowlton, Inc. Ms. Stoga can be contacted at 847-884-0000 or susan@carsonstoga.com Extended Bio...

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