January 7, 2019

Boston, Mower Agency

Crisis Communications for Hotels in the Age of Mass Shootings

Hotels and resorts have always been vulnerable to crises, from natural disasters to illness outbreaks. But the growing frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. has introduced a new exposure — a threat brought home when a gunman killed 58 concertgoers and injured hundreds from a suite at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. In 2018 alone, there were more than 300 mass shootings, including at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Anywhere people congregate with ease of access is a potential target for a mass shooting. Hotels by nature fit that profile and need crisis communications plans that specifically cover such events. You need to regularly update it, practice it and be ready to execute it. A few lessons from Las Vegas as you build your plan:

Managing the news media at your door. In the wake of a mass shooting, a hotel’s communications structures and responsibilities instantly change. No longer are you pitching stories about your new chef or renovation. The press is coming at you — and likely different types of reporters than what you’ve dealt with before. You need to be ready to provide frequent press updates in person and in writing; for instance, “It’s 2 p.m. EST, (date), here’s what we know now; here’s what we don’t know.” And you need to respond promptly. If you can’t answer a specific inquiry, acknowledge its receipt and say you’ll respond once you have the information.

Anticipate hard questions. Questions will inevitably follow about response time, whether there were communication gaps between hotel security and law enforcement, and whether hotel staff missed any red flags. Your plan must consider the tough questions media might raise. Create holding statements in advance that you can update at the time of crisis.

Monitor social media, but engage minimally. Your social media channels will be flooded by people seeking information on loved ones, expressing support and, predictably, pushing conspiracy theories. Your crisis plan will need a social media strategy to handle the onslaught. Monitor inquiries and direct people to platforms you own, like your website, where you can better control the message.

Use caution discussing security. Any statement about security procedures should reassure the public that protocols are in place and regularly reviewed, while avoiding specifics that may put that security at risk. MGM’s statement following the Las Vegas shooting strikes the right balance: “MGM Resorts has increased its level of security to add to the level of comfort and safety of our guests and employees… and it remains of utmost importance for our security team.”

Create a dark site. In a major crisis, you’ll want to overlay your property website with a landing page people can access for facts on what happened, updates, and emergency contact information. Prepare the shell as a “dark site” in advance so it can be tailored quickly to the crisis and be ready to go live if needed.

The crisis is short; the aftermath long. While Mandalay Bay’s business rebounded quickly, its reputation took a hit months later when news broke of a lawsuit filed by owner MGM Resorts International against the victims. Incendiary headlines spurred a hashtag, #BoycottMGM, that went viral. The lawsuit’s goal was dismissal of liability claims, not to collect damages from victims, as an MGM statement belatedly explained. No matter the validity of the legal strategy, MGM failed to anticipate the fallout in the court of public opinion.

Keep your plan fresh. The Las Vegas tragedy illustrates the value of reviewing and updating your crisis plan. According to this story by CBC Radio, “In a complete fluke of timing, Cathy Tull [chief marketing officer of Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority] had completely updated the Las Vegas crisis communication protocol — just the week before. She did it simply because it hadn’t been updated in years. That utter twist of fate allowed her team to spring into action.”

Whether your plan is due for an update or you need to create one, Mower can help. Our crisis team of public relations professionals handles everything from full-day crisis management training workshops to crisis plan creation and on-call support. To start the conversation, contact Mary Gendron, our SVP — managing director and Travel & Tourism team leader.

This post was first published on Mower.com.