In December, a 52-foot high cylindrical aquarium, the largest of its kind, burst—sending millions of gallons of water flooding into the lobby of Berlin’s Radisson Blu hotel. It left 1,500 tropical fish dead, two guests injured, and devastating damage. The scene proved irresistible to international media that streamed the images almost instantly across nearly every media outlet from BBC to CNN. The visuals portrayed the empty, damaged tank with water pouring into the lobby and debris that had washed out in front of the hotel. The scene looked more akin to a tsunami washing across Berlin than a hotel. This creates a stark reminder for the industry and begs the question: Is your organization prepared for a crisis?
Smart leaders will challenge their teams to crisis-proof the organization with a well-thought-out crisis response plan long before it’s ever needed. Proper planning can ensure that the organization is ready to take action in the minutes and hours following an incident. It can make the difference between helping to shape the message and protecting a brand or entirely missing the opportunity to share an organization’s story.
In the immediate moments following an incident, even a brief statement that acknowledges a situation and conveys concern and empathy can go a long way toward maintaining reputation. Instead of a call left unanswered, just being able to reach a person who can share an initial comment can make a difference: “Thank you for your call. We are aware of the situation and are gathering more information. The safety of our guests and employees is our top priority. I would be happy to call you back with more information as it becomes available.”
Both what is said and who says it matters. It was BP’s then CEO, Tony Hayward, who stated, during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, “I just want my life back.” In doing so, he came across as being more concerned about himself than the impact of this disaster. How an organization responds to a crisis can impact its reputation for many years to come.
No company or organization can risk forgoing a detailed crisis management plan. Too often, crisis response plans either don’t exist in the first place or sit untouched and not updated until a crisis hits. With advance planning, organizations can improve their outcomes, protect their business, and possibly even thrive following a crisis.
Phases of Crisis Preparation and Response
Phase I: Advance Preparation | Write down your crisis plan, anticipate scenarios, prewrite statements, run crisis simulations, create a response team, and cross-train response team members so they can fulfill multiple roles when necessary.
Phase II: Immediate response during crisis | Gather facts about the situation, prepare an initial statement and get quick approvals, and share a public statement to help shape the story. Determine if the team will simply react to incoming media or proactively communicate. Assess whether call centers or social media channels require messaging.
Phase III: As the crisis continues to unfold | Frequently communicate and touch base with the response team, updating media statements as more information becomes available. Assess whether updates should be made proactively to media or reactively. Update copy on corporate website and social media channels as needed.
Phase IV: Recovery | Convey a strong back-to-business message. Let the public know the hotel continues to remain open, so they know that business has not been or is no longer interrupted. Assess if there is a community relations component that can help the community impacted by the crisis. Collaborate with major industry associations like the American Hotel & Lodging Association and U.S. Travel Association on lobbying if the issue impacts the industry.
Crisis Dos and Don’ts
- Have a written crisis plan with clear lines of responsibility along with backup contacts who are cross-trained in the event that the primary lead is not available.
- Anticipate potential scenarios and write statements in advance that can be adapted as needed, e.g., IT security breaches, natural disasters, social issues, employee wrongdoing, crime at a hotel, activist groups inquiring about policies such as cage-free egg policies or use of down bedding, etc.
- Maintain a bank of prior response statements for quick reference.
- Identify your greatest weaknesses and plan accordingly.
- Pressure test your process with crisis simulations.
- Be silent—missing the opportunity to shape the story.
- Misstate facts—conveying incorrect information or speculating on causes prior to confirmation.
- Neglect to inform boards and forget to include executive teams in crisis planning.
- Fail to cross-train roles in case someone is on vacation or out sick when a crisis hits.
- Attempt to create new procedures and protocols during a crisis (these should be well established during advance planning).
- Put off simulations and planning because the organization is “too busy.”