© 2003 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
Mangled Metaphor for Those Highly Resistant to Crisis Planning
For some horses, the best you can do is point them in the direction of the water and remind them that they're dying of thirst.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
Target Corporation's Communications Miss the Bullseye
On May 23, 2003, Reuters reported that Target Corporation had refused to allow shareholders to ask questions at their annual meeting. That puzzled me, since I thought one of the primary purposes of annual meetings was shareholder communication -- and any PR intern knows that effective communication is two-way.
Realizing that media coverage is not always accurate, I tracked down Target spokesperson Douglas Kline, identifying myself as editor of this publication, describing its purpose and audience. I asked him to tell me what really happened. He confirmed the Reuters report with a fascinating and educational response:
"Our financial relations people have said repeatedly that there are many other and better opportunities to interact with shareholders," Kline said.
When I started to ask for more information, he interrupted me with this gem:
"Target doesn't communicate with trade publications or niche publications such as yours, so I really have nothing to tell you."
My reply? "That's OK Doug, you just told me plenty."
Lessons for crisis managers include:
- The #1 reason why crises become disasters remains arrogance.
- Even a story that starts with an apparently negative slant can be re-positioned positively; Mr. Kline could have taken a few minutes to explain the corporate position to me. Given that he had an initially sympathetic fellow PR person on the phone, he may well have been able to persuade me that they were being reasonable. Or, at a minimum, he could have provided some balance to the story. That might have taken a whole five minutes.
Instead, what he said, de facto, was "It's OK to deny shareholders the right to ask questions at annual meetings and it's also OK to shut out a significant segment of the media from obtaining ANY information from a Target spokesperson." And, he said, metaphorically, "We're big, we're bad, we're Target, and we don't have to talk to anyone when we don't feel like it, so nyah nyah!"
- Everything you say when you have a reporter on the phone is "on the record" unless you reach an agreement to the contrary before speaking -- and, even then, some journalists don't honor such agreements.
- Ignoring or shutting out important audiences is the same thing as painting a...ummm...TARGET...on your sensitive parts.
- Even relatively small "niche publications" now have international impact thanks to Internet-based publishing, particularly if they have a popular website and archive their articles for long periods of time.
Gee, lots of lessons in a three-minute phone exchange, huh? I guess I should say, "Thanks, Doug!"
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Editor's Note: Many thanks and kudos to Paul Witt, president of Witt Communications, for providing me with the facts and a lot of the copy that allowed me to write up this case history. If this had not been well handled by Paul and the hotel staff, there is little doubt that the hotel could have been out millions of dollars in additional lost business, run a high risk of lawsuits, and perhaps have gone out of business entirely.
Case History: Marriott Vail Hotel Fire
In November 2000 -- a week before Thanksgiving just after the ski season started -- a fire that started in a chimney destroyed a floor of rooms at the Marriott in Vail, Colorado and shut down an entire wing. It closed down 116 of 349 rooms in the hotel for the entire ski season, and also closed its ballroom and other function rooms for a month or so.
The hotel had to act quickly in contacting guests booked into the hotel for the next six months, help find other accommodations, rescue their Thanksgiving week business, not lose too much of their group business and assure everyone that the hotel was safe. Throw in the fact that it came out during the investigation that chimney construction in the unit where the fire started was faulty and that the chimney sweep had told the hotel about it a year before, and we had a very interesting situation. Lastly, toss in that Vail had been the location of another fire two years previous, set by eco-terrorists - speculation was rampant in the first couple of days.
The fire occurred on November 18 and crisis management consultant Paul Witt of Witt Communications was contacted the next day. He quickly huddled with the hotel's top management and developed a two-page communications strategy, tactics, timeline and key messages.
Key messages for the local business community and media included:
- We are grateful that no one was injured. All of the guests and staff were evacuated safely, and none of the firefighters were injured.
- The safety systems in the hotels all worked as designed -- smoke alarms and sprinklers all operated as they were supposed to.
- The hotel remains open and functioning. We are accommodating current guests, guests on the books, and guests calling to book future stays.
- 116 rooms out of 348 were affected, leaving 232 rooms available for guests
- All facilities are open, with the exception of the Grand Ballroom. The open facilities include the restaurant, the spa, Lobby Bar, Ski Shop, and other amenities.
- The Ballroom suffered water and smoke and damage. Clean up is underway now. We anticipate that it will reopen on (date given).
Key messages for staff included:
- You have done outstanding jobs -- we are proud of the way this staff has handled this situation.
- We don't know what started the fire, and there should be no speculation.
- The ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) is here because they are an added resource for the Town of Vail fire department. There is no other reason at this time.
- The building is being checked for structural safety. No one will be asked to go into any area of the building until we are certain that it is safe.
- Marriott's commitment to the staff is to keep you gainfully employed. It's too early to tell what impact, IF ANY, there will be on any employment situation.
- As much as Marriott is committed to you, we ask you to be committed to the property. You are still our best ambassadors of goodwill and guest service.
Similar messages went to their national business partners, and tactics for delivering these messages were customized to each audience. For example, meetings were held with Vail Resorts Central Reservations, Vail Valley Tourism Convention Bureau and other key referral sources. There were local and national press releases, and faxes sent to tour operators, travel agents and wholesalers. All fireplace use was banned pending inspections and necessary repairs to all chimneys.
Outcome & Impact
Not everything went smoothly. In early December it was revealed that chimney maintenance might not have been done properly, possibly contributing to the fire. Follow-up communications addressed how the hotel was now responding to that information in a responsible manner, to include acceleration of its existing program to convert wood-burning fireplaces to gas.Although the original construction of the chimney was deemed non-compliant with code, no citations were issued (probably in part because the Town of Vail's building inspector had signed off on the construction).
Business was off because the 119 rooms were out commission for the winter. So the hotel had to walk some of its guests, but was able to accommodate the vast majority of them. They lost minimal business because of the fire - mainly a few large groups that they could no longer take care of. However, with the ballroom still operable, they could still host large functions. Also, the hotel took the opportunity to revamp the entire wing of the hotel and significantly upgrade the rooms as well as the exterior of the building, which allowed them to re-launch the hotel the following winter as not only rebuilt, but "new and improved."
And as it turns out, Vail Resorts, the ski resort operator, purchased the hotel and invested a lot more money into upgrading the exterior of the rest of the building to the rebuilt section's design, while improving the remaining rooms and public areas. End result: everybody went home happy!
Paul Witt founded Witt Communications, www.wittcommunications.com, in October 2000, specializing in corporate communications and strategic messaging.
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ABOUT THE STAFF
Jonathan Bernstein is president & CEO of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. BCM engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning, training and simulations. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phil Cogan is executive vice president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a former print and broadcast news journalist who has been engaged in federal, state and local government crisis communications and emergency management activities since 1975. He was formerly the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Office of Emergency Information and Public Affairs. Write to email@example.com.
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