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Mr. Luciani

Social Media & Relationship Marketing

Media Relations: Handling Bad News

By Doug Luciani, Chief Associate, PRofit from PR - Public Relations & Marketing

Good news is great, but handle a bad news story poorly and the negative publicity can be severe.

A successful media relations campaign is valuable to any business, including hotels and resorts. Positive exposure of a property can generate reservations, increase profits, and give a business a competitive edge. However, the press isn't always going to be good. Bad news is a reality and negative publicity can erase any positive exposure.

Hotels are extremely susceptible to negative news. Food poison stories and stories about crime against guests often make the headlines. Some stories are completely out of the control of a hotel, such as hurricanes, floods or wild fires. Other stories are investigative reports that media outlets may do to expose flaws like unsanitary practices or unsafe furniture, such as defective cribs. It doesn't matter if they actually find something, perception can often become reality.

It is important to be ready to handle the crisis communications surrounding these types of stories. If handled poorly, a negative story can be devastating to a hotel's reputation and bottom line. An effective response can help minimize this, and in some instances, the response is so well received by the public the business actually grows stronger. Johnson & Johnson is a textbook case of this following the Tylenol poisonings in 1982. Because they put public safety ahead of profits, the media and consumers gave the company high praise.

Many think they can control the media or that reporters in their local market are their friend. That may be true, until a crisis erupts. A key part of any effective crisis communications plan is to have an appropriate spokesperson prepared to handle a media who will dig, probe and try to knock you off your key message.

It is important to be open and honest in all communications. It is also important to be in control of your message. Only approved staff members should speak to the media and this is especially true in a crisis situation. In addition, hotels should have a crisis communications plan. This plan should be in writing, updated regularly, and distributed to the appropriate individuals for effective execution.

What should be included in this plan? Any plan is made up of a few basics. First, it should include initial action steps once a crisis begins. This may involve securing a facility, notifying law enforcement and will most definitely involve contacting the individuals needed to execute the communications plan and keep the media informed. That being said, the plan needs to identify who these individuals are, their role and their contact information. Other steps include adding information to your institution's Web site and coordinating the release of all information across distribution points.

Communicating during a crisis may mean dealing with information that can position your property in a negative light. Do not attack or blame the media for this problem. Do not attack them directly or in communications with other audiences. The media can hurt you more than you can hurt them. In addition, media outlets enjoy being involved in controversy. It helps them sell more papers or brings in more viewers, which increases their ad revenue, sales, and profits.

That being said, it does not mean you can't be proactive. Be sure to communicate your side of the story. Perception will become reality if you do not answer a negative. You can also lessen negative publicity by lending perspective to a situation.

When communicating with a journalist during a crisis situation there a few things to remember. First and foremost, a reporter is there to do a job - their job.

When speaking with a reporter do not speculate. Only speak to what you know. If you do not know the answer to a question, do not make it up. Simply tell the reporter that you will need to call them back with that information. Reporters are looking to deliver stories that are based on facts, not fiction.

If during a conversation or interview a reporter makes a mistake regarding the facts, correct them. Do not assume they misspoke or feel that you will be out of line pointing out their error. If you do not speak up, their error could be perceived as fact by the audience. Furthermore, do not let a reporter put words in your mouth.

Through the years movies have shown how reporters get background information from a reluctant source by using the phrase "off the record." In the real world, there is no such thing as "off the record", or to "speak on background" as some may say. The problem is that there is no standard definition as to what "off the record" means. Does it mean the information can't be shared - ever? Does it mean it can be shared if the reporter obtains independent confirmation? Does it mean it can be shared without attribution?

Do not rely on "No Comment" as an appropriate response - EVER. You should never say "no comment." The phrase conjures up images of someone trying to hide something, usually their face behind a jacket as they are led away in handcuffs. It simply leaves the impression you are not being completely honest.

Do not attempt to stall or stonewall a reporter. Journalists flourish when sources try to give them the run-around. It motivates them to get to the bottom of the story. If a reporter senses trouble, they will not stop until they find it.

The media is not the only outside source who can impact your property's reputation. Today, the Internet offers an outlet for the public to post their information and thoughts. Guest communications and assistance during a crisis can help mitigate any information and hard feelings that may arise. This may prevent or at least lessen negative reviews and reports on the Web.

Working with the media during good times can be a great benefit to a hotel. When the news turns bad, it is equally important to execute effective media relations efforts in order to lessen the impact of this negative exposure. Hospitality management can take safety precautions to lessen the possibility of a situation, such as food poison, occurring. But no amount of preparation can prevent the impact from all potential crisis situations. Knowing how to properly deal with the media when a crisis occurs is the key.

Doug Luciani leads PRofit from PR, focusing on media relations, marketing communications, e-marketing strategies and media training. PRofit from PR's clients span the U.S. and feature technology, healthcare, security, real estate and corporate training. Mr.Luciani also serves as VP of PR for Dickinson & Associates, and Chief Communications Officer for Florida Vacation Auction. A graduate of the University of Florida, he is a member of the Florida Public Relations Association, the Public Relations Society of America and several regional business development organizations. Mr. Luciani can be contacted at 407-719-6102 or doug@profitfrompr.com Extended Bio...

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