Crisis plans — not if, but when

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

January was an eventful month for hotels, as an Oakville, Ont., property evacuated guests due to carbon monoxide problems, and in Ottawa, the potential threat of an ex-military weapons specialist possessing hazardous chemicals forced the evacuation of the Chimo hotel.

These types of problems come as no surprise to Lynn Gervais, communications director for TopTable Group. She has dealt with disasters that include guest deaths, staff injuries, food poisoning, construction defects and a facility that hosted four major events before they had a license to operate.

“Crisis planning is very important,” she said, because you can’t plan when the crisis is happening. “Would you consider buying seatbelts and airbags for your car while sliding toward a wall at top speed?” she told a recent conference in B.C.

Anticipate a crisis — brainstorm regarding potential crises and responses. Sometimes crises can be anticipated, as when a company lays off employees, undergoes acquisitions or has strikes by unions. When it’s tourist season, know that Norovirus will be on a climb.

During the Vancouver Olympics, Gervais worked for a hotel. They talked about what would happen if a bomb went off during the opening ceremonies, what if it were in our lobby, what if our employees planted it, what if HR had heard something but didn’t report it.

Set up a small crisis team, identify and train spokespersons and have backup people in place in case of holidays or illness. “These people should have the skills, position and training. High ranking, charismatic leaders sometimes freeze in front of the media – it’s not pretty,” Gervais said.

Practise, practise, practise when it comes to training. Shoot an internal video when you’re practising. Then everyone involved can know how they look and feel on camera. The smallest detail matters. “I tend to tip my head and nod when listening,” said Gervais. “On camera that looks unprofessional.”

Training teaches you how to remain calm and go back to your key messages. In a practice session where a hotel general manager was supposed to be reassuring guests, he was asked if he would feel comfortable bringing his kids to the hotel. “No, my kids would be in the first bus out of town,” he said – obviously not the key message.

Identify and know your stakeholders, make sure they are up to date and have the right messaging. If your organization is not directly handling the message, have a place for people to direct their inquiries.

Establish notification and monitoring systems using e-mail distribution, SMS, FaceBook, LinkedIn groups and Twitter feeds. Monitor Google Alerts and Hootsuite for free to find out what is happening and respond.

Develop holding statements right away. Examples include, “We’ve been made aware of the situation. Our first priority is guests and staff. We will provide you with additional information as it becomes available.”

Finalize and adapt key messages. Think about how audiences can reach you – set up a dedicated phone line, email address or ghost page for your website and activate them during the crisis situation. Never, ever, ever say, “No comment.”

Post-crisis analysis is important – you can analyze your crisis communications plan and find ways to improve it, Gervais said.