Marriott tweets to spread word during crisis
 
Marriott tweets to spread word during crisis
03 AUGUST 2009 8:10 AM

Social media gains prominent role in Marriott’s response to Jakarta bombings.

If any doubt remained about social media’s importance to hospitality communications, Marriott International singlehandedly erased it this summer by turning to Twitter and blog posts as principal platforms for responding to the deadly bombings of its JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Rich Roberts

Marriott’s communications staff issued its first message—a simple acknowledgement, “Gathering info now ...”—on Twitter at 10:09 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on 16 July, just 81 minutes after a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in a function room at the JW Marriott and 86 minutes after another suicide bomber struck the Ritz Carlton from inside the Airlangga Restaurant.

At 10:17 p.m., Marriott (known on Twitter as MarriotIntl) issued its second message, “To all who have tweeted, we are gathering info and will have more as we learn details from Jakarta.” The third message, “We are monitoring the situation, working closely w/authorities to ensure that our guests and associates are moved to safety,” came at 11:09. That update was followed a minute later by a formal condolence. More updates were posted by Marriott on Twitter throughout the night—15 more between 11:15 p.m. and 7 a.m. the next morning.

The company turned to its most widely known spokesperson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Marriott, to summarize the situation on his blog at 11:18 p.m. Eastern, less than 150 minutes after the suicide attacks. “Our deepest sympathies go out to the victims of the tragic bombings that took place earlier today in Jakarta, Indonesia,” he said, and then detailed steps taken to evacuate the properties and treat the victims. He also listed the Marriott Family Assistance Hotline numbers for families to inquire about guests.

Evidently determined to demonstrate Marriott International wouldn’t be intimidated by such attacks, Bill Marriott wrote a follow-up blog on the day following the bombing titled "Marriott Remains Committed to Hospitality in Jakarta and Around the World." A week later, he posted a blog entitled A Spirit of Determination in Jakarta, detailing a visit by Ed Fuller, the company’s president of international lodging, to meet with the survivors and hotel staff.

The comments of several dozen readers subsequently were posted with the blogs including this 17 July message from a writer who identified himself as Pradeep: “My deepest condolences to the victims’ families. Marriott got hit again, this time in Indonesia. I remember the last time I came to this blog was when they bombed the Marriott in Pakistan. This is depressing.”

His comment referred to Bill Marriott’s blogs issued 20 September 2008, following a suicide bomb attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan. In a widely reprinted entry entitled This Senseless Tragedy—his second posting of the day—Marriott saluted the security team members killed that day as they searched the attacker’s truck. The entry ended by thanking everyone who submitted condolences on his blog.

When the company announced the formal reopening of its Jakarta hotels on 29 July, it did so only via Twitter with this message at 10:42 a.m. Eastern: “The JW Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton, Jakarta, reopened today at 10 a.m. local time, less than 2 weeks after a coordinated attack.”

New medium replaces old

Notably absent during this period was the flurry of press releases that would be expected in the wake of a disaster, given the traditional dependence of Marriott and its competitors on newspapers and radio and television news to carry their corporate messages to the public. This time, Marriott posted just one release to its online corporate newsroom, a statement 20 September that simply reiterated Bill Marriott’s blog comments. Instead, the company’s communications team relied almost exclusively on Twitter and the blog to distribute updates. (Click here for a transcript of messages issued on Twitter by MarriottIntl from 16 July to 2 August.)

John Wolf, Marriott International senior director of public relations (who has become its chief Twitterer), said the company first used Twitter as a crisis communications channel during the Islamabad bombing. “We realized the value in it because you can get information out there quickly, and you don’t have to go into great detail,” he said. “There’s always a thirst for information. This enables us to at least acknowledge we know about it, we’re reacting to it and we will have more later.”

Of all the communications channels, Twitter offers the quickest way to issue a statement because it’s mobile and instantaneous, he said. Blog entries are the next fastest, followed by Web site postings and press releases issued via a wire service.

Even traditional reporters have begun to follow Twitter messages. CNN, for example, quoted Marriott’s Twitter feed during its reporting in the wake of the Jakarta bombings, Wolf said, adding reporters are becoming accustomed to checking Marriott’s Twitter messages and Bill Marriott’s blog for real-time comments. (Marriott’s official social media presence doesn’t extend to Facebook or MySpace. The Marriott site on Facebook is managed by an employee and isn’t an official company source of information, according to Wolf.)

The followers

So who reads Marriott International’s Twitter messages? “Our followers (Twitter jargon for people who subscribe to the messages sent by others) are people who have an interest in the company and what we say or what we stand for,” Wolf said. “It’s hotel owners and franchisees. It’s the media. It’s guests. It’s other people in other parts of the travel industry. And it’s Joe Q. Public who, for whatever reason, wants to follow Marriott.

“I look at it as no different than when a story appears in a newspaper. In this case, you’re reaching a cross section of the world. A good deal of our followers are not in the United States. It’s the same for the blog, because it touches internationally, too, via the World Wide Web.”

Twitter messages posted by other users are viewed as a potential source of intelligence for the company, Wolf said.

“With Twitter, you can get on-site information almost in real time,” he said. “It gives you another outlet to see what’s being reported. Typically, if you are many time zones away, people on the ground may have information that hasn’t been reported or corroborated by traditional news.”

For instance, after first learning about the Jakarta bombings, Wolf scoured Twitter for information he could share with his colleagues.

The validity of searching Twitter for news updates is supported by Peter Cashman in a 16 July report published in the online publication Mashable, which claims the first reports about the Jakarta bombings were generated by Twitter user Daniel Tumiwa, who sent the following two messages to his followers shortly after the blasts: “Bom @ marriot and ritz Carlton kuningan jakarta.” And “2 boms go off at marriot hotel ad ritz carlton jakarta.”

Not ready to abandon the old guard

While Marriott is relying more on Twitter and blogs to send messages out to the world’s audiences, the hotel company’s communications staff remains dedicated to answering the questions of individual news reporters. In the event of a major crisis such as the Islamabad and Jakarta bombings, Marriott handles press inquiries centrally, through its headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.

The communications staff also coordinates statements issued by local company spokespeople, including property public relations staff and agency representatives, Wolf said.

“Obviously, if there are reporters on the ground, we need somebody locally to speak with them, someone who can bridge time zones and language issues,” he said.

Alan Orlob, Marriott global head of security, happened to be in Asia conducting routine security surveys of the company’s hotels at the time of the Jakarta bombings. Subsequently, he was quoted at length in stories written by Bloomberg News Service and other outlets during the days following the attack.

Rich Roberts is a 33-year communications veteran who has worked for two of the world’s largest lodging franchisors, Wyndham Worldwide and Choice Hotels International; two marketing agencies; Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Company; and the daily newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa.  He now is affiliated with Ferri & Partners, a full-service public relations agency specializing in marketing luxury products and services in North America (www.ferriandpartners.com).

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