By Daniel Edward Craig.
It’s an incident guaranteed to make any hotelier shudder. After a power outage at a Texas hotel last summer, a paralyzed American war veteran called the front desk to request help from his room. For reasons not entirely clear, the clerk allegedly laughed at the request and mocked him.
The guest got down by throwing his wheelchair and bags down three flights of stairs and sliding down on his backside. Then he went to straight to the media.
The incident incited a public furor that quickly spread to social networks. The hotel, its employees and the entire brand came under attack, with expressions of outrage and calls for a brand-wide boycott. Despite a solid reputation, it seemed nothing the brand could do—issue a refund and a public apology, dismiss the employee, implement staff training—would appease detractors.
Given the rapid-fire pace at which content can spread via social networks, hotels have never been more vulnerable. A seemingly minor issue can quickly escalate into a full-blown crisis, causing serious damage to reputation.
So how to prepare for, avert and mitigate a social media crisis? A look at recent incidents can teach us some valuable lessons.
Given the risks involved, a social media policy with a crisis management component must be a priority. Outline the steps to take in the event of a crisis, the people responsible, and the role social media will play in messaging. Keep a list of emergency contacts at hand, including your social media administrator.
When a crisis hits, there’s no time for bureaucracy. You must respond quickly and decisively. But first you must assess what’s at stake. Include senior management in decisions, and if appropriate seek advice from a PR firm or lawyer.
Outline guidelines for employee conduct
In November, after a woman complained on the Facebook page of a Boston restaurant that her meal “tasted like vomit”, the chef posted a profane, abusive rejoinder from the restaurant’s official account. The public outcry came fast and furious, with many vowing never to set foot in the restaurant again.
For employees, the rules of conduct on social networks should be no different than on property, and that includes welcoming feedback and showing respect for the opinions of others. This applies not only to social media administrators but to any employees representing themselves as such in personal communications.
Keep a tight reign on account access
Hacking is a big issue on social networks. Recently, the official Twitter feed of British Airways was compromised, and a racist, abusive tweet was issued to over 200,000 followers in the company’s name.
In some cases the breach is internal. Last month an HMV employee used the company’s official Twitter feed to live-tweet his dismissal to over 62,000 followers. “There are over sixty of us being fired at once!” he tweeted. “Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand.” And then: “Just heard our Marketing Director (he’s staying, folks) ask, ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’”
Now that’s a good question. Do your senior managers and HR department have access to your social accounts and know how to use them? Protecting your brand means keeping a tight reign on access, changing passwords regularly, and having procedures in place in the event of a hacking and employee dismissals.
Social media doesn’t take weekends off
Jon Paul Buchmeyer, digital media strategist for Hawkins Public Relations, tells me about the angry customer of a client who ran a Sponsored Post campaign on Facebook over a weekend about his mistreatment by employees. Management didn’t have a monitoring system in place, and by the time Monday arrived hundreds of angry posts had appeared on the brand’s Facebook page.
A reputation management tool like ReviewPro will monitor the social web for you and alert you to mentions of your brand so you’ll be ready to act at the first signs of trouble. The tool will also allow you track and analyze sentiment over time to ensure your actions are having the desired effect.
Publish an official response
Recently, a photo of a dogfight in a bar showing Heineken banners displayed prominently in the backdrop caused a public furor on social networks, prompting attacks on Heineken’s ethics and calls to boycott its products.
In fact, Heineken had no part in the sponsoring the dogfight; the banners had been left up from a previous event. That’s one of the dangers of social media: people are quick to react, judge and share without checking the source.
As part of efforts to contain the spread of misinformation, Heineken posted a notice to its website. An official response is a critical step. It should be honest and sincere, should speak to your company’s credentials, and should be authored by a senior executive. Post it to one channel—your website or blog, a video—and direct all inquiries there.
Call on your community of fans to help get your messaging out. Their words will have more impact and reach than official brand messages.
Don’t fuel the fire
Buchmeyer tells me of another incident in which a client attempted to quell a spate of angry comments on its Facebook page by deleting them and blocking detractors. This only resulted in escalating the situation. Monitor conversations and respond as appropriate, but resist the urge to sanitize.
In some cases it may be better to “go dark” on social media rather than draw attention to the issue and further provoke detractors. This is especially true in the case of a tragedy or natural disaster, when communications should be restricted to community support and keeping guests informed.
Get the content removed
Getting damaging content taken down can be challenging, especially if it has spread to multiple channels. Go to the source and ask them to remove it, but don’t be heavy handed. At the same time, appeal to the host site to have it removed. Litigation is an option if the content is libelous, but use it as a last resort. Engage in charitable causes and community work that will garner positive content to displace the negative.
Reputation management—a company wide function
The media loves a scandal, and exposés of security, sanitation and safety issues are popular topics that can be highly damaging to business. Employees must be aware that social media has raised the stakes. The consequences of guest mistreatment, negligence and lapses in quality, service and security can be severe. Management must play its part by providing the training, empowerment and support necessary to ensure standards are understood and upheld.
The good news is a social media crisis can fade away as quickly as it flares up. With expert handling, the story may be less about the incident itself that about how well your hotel managed it.
Join my free webinar with ReviewPro, Social Media and Crisis Management, on Tuesday, February 26, when we draw from the expert advice of Dr Alexandros Paraskevas, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Risk Management at Oxford Brookes University, and Jon Paul Buchmeyer of Hawkins Public Relations.