Indecisive messaging and bad communications can inflict worse damage to the top line than the crisis they are intended to repair. Get it right, and guests and staff will remember.
GLOBAL REPORT—When guests are not being met by hoteliers in their lobbies, more than ever it is essential that hoteliers meet their guests online with clear news, guidelines, policies and other communications—but getting this right can be a minefield, according to sources.
The effect of bad communication can be disastrous, and the need for succinct communication will continue after coronavirus has ebbed.
Speaking last week during online conference Hospitality Tomorrow, Wolfgang Neumann, chairman of International Tourism Partnership and Hotelschool The Hague, said the right choices of words, tone and intent are critical.
“I think back to the statement the CEO (Tony Hayward) of BP made during the gulf spill in Mexico, ‘I’d like my life back,’ or the response of United removing that passenger,” said Neumann, the former CEO of Radisson Hotel Group. “Neither owned up to the mistake, and that did not turn right for them until their messaging changed.”
Do not sugarcoat news and do not hide, panelists said during a session titled “Communicating in a crisis.” In most cases, guests will appreciate the companies that are the most transparent and helpful.
“You have to get ahead of the news, or you will always be behind. … The story does not come out when you are in a bunker mentality, and that will kill you quicker than the crisis itself,” said Peter Greenberg, travel editor of CBS News. “You can measure the fear with your own firms, so if government does not help you, help yourself and manage it.”
Arnie Weissmann, editor-in-chief of Travel Weekly, said the best post-crisis communication he observed around the COVID-19 crisis is that of Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International, who was transparent about what is happening at the company.
“It was candid, compassionate, note perfect,” he said. “He talks about the effect on staff and how difficult his decisions are, and it was genuine.”
Greenberg said the response of the hotel industry has been good, although that cannot be said for some other connected industries.
“Have we seen one airline CEO talk to consumers directly, to the press directly?” he said. “No, they are in a bunker with their accountants asking, ‘How much is this costing me?’ I have received thousands of emails saying airlines will not refund them, yet the airlines are seeking out a huge government bailout.”
Panelists said to get the right message out into the public sphere, it is important to know who in any company has the responsibility for that messaging. Make sure that person has trust and credibility.
Panel moderator David Tarsh, CEO of Tarsh Consulting, said he has not seen any clear messaging on booking refund policies on hotel websites.
Silence is not golden
Neumann said a hotel’s C-suite needs to take control of their messaging, which in turn will help them take control over their businesses.
“The CEO has to be the key and a leader of excellent teams. It is important to assess the facts, and facts are your friend during a crisis. Be clear and honest, and stay clear of assumptions and guesses, and let lawyers and accountants advise but not lead,” Neumann said, who added his biggest professional crisis was when a Radisson Blu in Bamako, Mali, was subject to a terrorist attack in 2015 when 20 lives were lost.
Tarsh said lawyers likely would think differently anyway, as they “think with the idea that the ultimate argument will happen in a court of law.”
Transparency is also needed with the fourth estate, panelists said.
“Have a good relationship with journalists during the good times, as that will help in the bad ones,” Greenberg said. “It is the responsibility of a CEO to speak with transparency to all and all of the time.”
No news isn’t necessarily good news, Weissmann said.
“Silence is attributed as indecision,” he said.
Indecisive messaging is just as bad, he added.
“In the U.S., there is failure and mixed messages (in regard to COVID-19). The governor of New York State and the president have different tactics and facts,” he said.
What is remembered after a crisis is over is how firms responded to it and treated their guests and consumers, panelists said.
“It is about planning and training, and learning, and then adapting and improving crisis management. Flexibility and adaptation are key,” Neumann said. “This is also about reputational management, and consumers will remember, certainly in a situation of this gravity,” he added.
Crises can lead to the best inspiration and marketing, panelists added.
“Already you are seeing some very interesting developments, about how companies can stay connected with guests even if guests cannot visit them, such as hotel-created fitness programs and travel agencies, who have zero revenue coming in, having happy hours, keeping the travel dreams alive, with their clients,” Weissmann said.
“Hotels remain a force for good in so many communities, and (the industry is) being what it always is, hospitable,” Neumann said. “Hotels are doing what is right, and these stories will persevere. Bad situations almost make good stories.”