PR for Emergencies: Are you Prepared?

Insurance covers a wide variety of possible bad scenarios, but not how you deal with them. A badly handled situation could easily mean the end of your business.

An article by Martin Hatchuel, on preparing for and dealing with emergencies, comes to mind. It also highlights how important it is to manage your reputation.

With his permission, we reproduce Martin’s article below as we think it includes great advice on how to protect your reputation should something bad happen.

Why Media Planning Works:
Being in tourism means that we sometimes play with people’s lives. Adventure operators especially – people who take visitors down into the earth, or swimming with fantastic creatures, or even (in time to come) into outer space, know the risks – so they have the insurance. So you have protected yourself because you’ve studied the Consumer Protection Act, and you know that you can now be held liable for all kinds of nasty things that, previously, didn’t even exist (because in those days you felt safe hiding behind your indemnity forms).

So you have all the financial and legal armour you need. You’re compliant.
But what have you done to protect the reputation of your business when something goes horribly wrong?

Do yourself a favour: Google ‘Financial value of reputation.’ You’ll get 75 million results, give or take, because it’s an enormous issue.

Author Leslie Gaines Ross says that it takes about three and a half years for a corporate to regain its reputation (I expect that’s three and a half years after the decision has been made to re-build that reputation); and you’ll see that the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School has published a paper called ‘Assessing a Financial Value for a Corporate Entity’s Reputation; A Proposed Formula’ by Ryan Bowd of the Centre for Corporate and Public Affairs, and Les Bowd of the Henley School of Management.

But let’s face it: almost no one in the tourism industry has the money to re-build a reputation that took years to develop, and, even if everything’s running smoothly, who’s got the time to sit down and work out what your reputations are worth? It’s enough to know that your business has a reputation, and that it has to be protected

Of course you’re doing all the right things – training your staff, empowering them to be more friendly and welcoming, and such, and ‘adding value to the guest experience’ (hate that term: soon as I hear anyone say something remotely like it I get all defensive and think Oh? So what are they taking away…?).

All of which will improve your already awesome reputation steadily, but  incrementally. Until an inconsiderate guest falls on her arse on your highly polished stoep, the ambulances arrive, and the media gets to hear about it.

What are you going to do then, hmm? You’ll call you lawyers and insurers – and then?

I have had the privilege of being part of a team that swung quickly into action to protect a client’s reputation after an accident occurred on his (the client’s) site.
I’m not going to tell you who the client is, nor how the accident happened – but I will tell you that helping the patient was the first priority, that he was discharged from hospital pretty quickly, and that he’s now OK.

It all began when the client called me late last year. He’d read my paper on media management, and he wanted me to help him create a protocol for how the team at a specific tourist attraction would act if the worst came to the worst.

So we sat down and identified who would be responsible for what: who would call out the emergency people, who would attend to the victim, who would attend to the needs of other guests, who would call the media liaison officer, and who would be placed on permanent stand by as a back-up if the media liaison chappy (me) wasn’t available.

We laid this protocol out in broad strokes – we didn’t want the plan to fail because someone said “it wasn’t my job in the plan” – and the client went off and explained everything to his crew, and we all hoped that we’d never have to use it.

But we did.
Some genius who had nothing to do with my client or his operation suffered a serious fall, and the client’s crew realised immediately that they’d have to help. Which they did: they got hold of the emergency teams, who arrived less than three quarters of an hour after the accident (like many tourist attractions, the site is out in the bush).

But this is the digital age, and within minutes of the accident itself, the client got a call from a radio station: “We’ve heard that your equipment failed, and someone was hurt. Can you give us more information?”

“No, No,” said the client. “It wasn’t our equipment, and the injured person wasn’t one of our guests.”

And then he did the very thing we’d planned for. He said: “But I will have more information and I’ll send you a media release during the course of the morning.”

And then he got hold of me.

Well, the upshot of the whole affair was that we had a draft media release prepared and ready for the leader of the emergency team to check well before he got the patient to hospital (he had his iPhone with him), and within an hour of the accident, we’d got the actual, factual story out to the media. The truth, with no embellishments.

And then – nothing happened. Which is exactly what we’d planned for.

See, in cases like this, journalists usually only chase a story if they  think there’s been a cover up, if someone’s been negligent, or if someone has died. But we were able to show them – quickly and convincingly – that that wasn’t the case, and this satisfied them, so they moved on to more interesting things.

Still, even if the circumstances of the accident had been different, careful media management would have helped to contain the damages (management – not spin: it’s about honesty and a sense of compassion), and the client wouldn’t find himself with a rush of cancellations, suddenly empty seats, and a whole lot of staff who have to be paid out of a dwindling turnover.

Read Managing Perceptions: The Care and Feeding of The Media here.
Written by Martin Hatchuel

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