Crisis Communications & Tourism

By Monty Hagler

I recently had the opportunity to hear Norman Stowe, CEO of Pace Group Communications in Vancouver and WORLDCOM partner, present near Milwaukee, WI at the Upper Midwest Travel & Tourism Conference to more than 100 travel and tourism professionals.  The speech focused on lessons learned from a number of catastrophic events that have taken place in recent years:  the tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the collapse of a coliseum roof in Vancouver, the outbreak of SARS in Canada and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
During each of these disasters, WORLDCOM partners played (and continue to play) a critical role in helping communities get back on track, with a particular focus on communicating with external audiences what is happening and the steps being taken on the road to recovery. Disasters – whether man-made or natural – take a tremendous toll on a community’s revenue from a travel and tourism perspective. Events get cancelled, hotel rooms go unbooked and attractions are left bare.
Norman shared many good points, but highlighted below are five intriguing tips that he and I discussed at dinner the night before.
Who Tells the Story Best
In deciding who is going to be the spokesperson in a time of crisis, pick the person who can tell the story best. A person’s title matters far less than having someone who is comfortable talking to the media, who is adept at explaining what is taking place and can elaborate on what is yet to come. Storytelling is not a negative word here. You need someone who can capture what is happening and articulate that to the outside world.
As a corollary, Norman and I both agree that trustworthiness is more important than technical expertise for crisis communications. Norman had a particularly sad but funny story about an engineer being named spokesperson during a crisis, despite the fact he disliked talking with the media and refused to answer any questions that he did not think were relevant.
Don’t Forget the Binder
When a crisis happens, take five minutes to pull out the “Crisis Communications Plan” that has been developed, review the core steps that need to be handled – regardless of what the specific nature of the crisis is – and then get to work. Companies and organizations spend a tremendous amount of time preparing crisis plans, but rarely take the time to put them to work when a crisis hits. The steps are laid out, and while they will undoubtedly need to be tweaked, following that big binder will ensure fewer things are missed or forgotten.
Make Decisions
In a crisis situation, the ability to make decisions quickly is a critical skill. A failure to act compounds the entire chain of response. Yes, information needs to be gathered and assessed, and there must be collaboration among various agencies and groups. But someone must be the decision-maker, and his or her most important task is to MAKE DECISIONS.
Norman put it this way: “In a crisis, you have to make 100 decisions a day. You should aim to be right on 85 percent of them. Be decisive and let people move forward. If you only make 50 decisions a day – even if you get them all correct – you have made things even worse and the recovery more difficult.”
News Media Competition Trumps Accuracy
For anyone who has been involved in dealing with the news media during a crisis, this is a sad, harsh reality. Media coverage is driven by who gets the first details of a story – the sadder and more outrageous the better. Accuracy is lower on the list of what matters to media outlets competing for story angles and breaking news. Organizations must be equally aggressive in telling their story to the media.
The Travel & Tourism Practice Group of WORLDCOM has established a speaker’s bureau of top agency leaders who have handled a wide range of crisis communications projects. If you would like to book a speaker for an upcoming event, or learn more about how to help your organization prepare for potential crises, please email me at