Crises can have huge effects on hotels and destinations, but the freefall can be exacerbated if the company’s message is wrong or confusing, according to experts.
LONDON—In a year that has witnessed several major terrorism incidents, at least two major earthquakes and a steady line of devastating hurricanes, never has it been more important for destinations and organizations to have credible spokespeople and clear crisis-management plans in place, according to sources.
That sounds simple enough, but how those plans play out in a burgeoning world of social media and non-traditional lodging offerings is anything but easy, said speakers on a panel at the World Travel Market titled “An insight into destination crisis communications in the digital era.”
Some key advice: Keep it as simple as possible. Do not waiver from the message. Concentrate on education, not fueling panic.
“We’ve stolen a line from advertising: Truth well told,” said Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
Not all crises are alike.
“We use the word crisis pretty much constantly, and we do not categorize them, and for each one we have a different response, but one thing we need is support from destinations, so that the media does not themselves fill in the gaps,” said Nikki White, director of destinations and sustainability at the Association of British Travel Agencies.
Riley’s “truth well told” should be coupled with White’s plea: “Do not hide anything.”
“No matter how organized your country is, something will happen someday,” Riley said.
Abed al Razzaq Arabiyat, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board, said often destinations experience the after-effects of crises that are not their own making.
“(Jordan’s) location (is) between countries with political problems, noisy neighbors, so the answer is about how to convey the best portrayal, that we are safe,” Arabiyat said.
“We invite media to visit, and we host a lot of international events, business and leisure ones, such as the (International Monetary Fund) and (the singer) Andrea Bocelli, which provides an indirect message to the world that Jordan is safe,” he said.
It’s critical during a crisis to have qualified spokespeople, and to make sure everyone involved knows the proper chain of command and how to get in contact with the right people, panelists said.
“When officials speak, I think that is the wrong strategy,” Arabiyat said.
Riley added this advice: “Connect the dots, and have accurate updates across all websites.”
That can be tricky in the Caribbean, he said, but is eminently possible.
“We do not represent a single nation,” he said. “We have different countries and different languages, but our motto is one sea, one voice, one Caribbean—although that can create the dilemma in that what affects one island affects them all.”
Riley said hurricane information towers can withstand category 3 hurricanes, but (Maria and Irma were) were category 5s, which can make relaying accurate information more difficult.
“It used to be that accommodations were clustered in the same place, but today there are so many more types of accommodation, tourists can be and often are in far-flung places and much harder to reach with information and advice,” he said.
“Hurricanes Irma and Maria, these created a massive challenge,” he said. “A dozen islands were damaged in one way or another, and the rest not at all, but 100% of them suffered unintended impact through collateral damage. A good example of that is the Bahamas. Some islands were affected, but the Bahamas covers 100,000 square miles.”
“But how do you get that point across in a sensitive way,” Riley asked.
“It is on us to prepare the information that we want share with our members, which, in turn, helps their response. Have a straightforward message,” White said.
Selecting the spokesperson
Panelists reiterated the care needed to have the right spokesperson comment on the right issues.
All the planning in the world can be agreed on, but if the wrong spokesperson gives out the wrong message, the freefall can be costly and long-lasting, panelists added.
“We have workshops and training courses, and the message always has to be very clear across all of them,” Arabiyat said.
“Manage the processes,” Riley said. “People will call when they want to, and it can be a constant barrage, so know who the spokesperson is and have member countries know who the spokespeople are.”
He also warned against clever journalists adept at getting, for example, a receptionist to say a few words, from which a pre-conceived storyline is made complete.
“Even when the spokesperson is an official of high standing, it remains critical to retain credibility,” he said. “Not everyone is an expert on everything. If the crisis is crime-related, get a policeman. The right spokesperson for the right crisis.”
Riley added that processes must be put in place so that everything can be verified before any message goes out.
“Make sure you have a plan in place, so that comments are not reactive, and understand what is the ability of your organization to speak to those it needs to speak to,” said Chris Fair, president of Resonance Consultancy.
He said often thought only goes in to how to address the public, and not the various channels that information takes before it gets to that point.
Fake news and other new threats
Crises can be exacerbated, even invented, from new threats, panelists said.
“Fake news can certainly affect tourism and reputation, but mostly this is a problem for regulatory bodies,” Arabiyat said.
Responsible bodies, though, must use the latest social media vehicles to get their messages out, Riley said.
“Distribute messages by mobile. And with the young, forget (public service announcements) and TV messages; they’re just not reading them,” he said.
Another new potential crisis is a data breach, panelists said.
“It’s something where facts have to be established,” White said. “For instance, how do you know you’ve been breached?”
She said behind all this crisis-management advice, there’s still the need to continue to plan for sunnier days.
“Keep the recognition up, because at some time destinations will come back. Tunisia is an excellent point in case,” White said.