There are many firms offering "reputation management" services, to assist hotels and restaurants in overcoming negative online reviews. There is a huge industry involved in the combatting of negative online feedback, to the point where many only see the issue as one of search results. There are volumes of resources concerning how to "astroturf" Trip Advisor or Yelp, how to censor and remove negative complaints or using SEO tactics to influence results.
In another post, I will discuss more ethically based forms of reputation management, focussing upon responding to customer complaints, correcting incorrect information and leveraging guest feedback to influence service development. In this article, I would like to address the often neglected and lost art of reputation management in terms of more traditional Public Relations.
Reputation management was once solely a public relations term, that dealt with outreach designed to positively influence an individual's or business's image or reputation either in print or be word of mouth. PR Pioneer Edward Bernays famously stated, "Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.'' His work provided inspiration to the "spin doctors" and campaign consultants of the era, such as Hitler's Dr. Goebbels.
In latter years, the public relations trade recovered from that lamentable example. My favorite example of an ethical PR practitioner was the father of the modern professional sports league, Pete Rozelle. Along with overseeing the growth of the NFL to today's monolithic proportions, Commissioner Rozelle pioneered two innovations we are well familiar with. One was NFL properties, which in this day and age has seen merchandise royalties become a multi billion dollar revenue stream for the league. His other master stroke was NFL Films, an enterprise that reached the same artistic heights for football films, that Leni Riefenstahl achieved in depicting the 1936 Olympics for the Nazi regime, or the great Bud Greenspan did for the Olympiads in our time.
The only PR misstep Commissioner Rozelle is said to have made in his thirty year tenure was his decision made in 1963 to play NFL games on the weekend of the Kennedy assassination. In that debate in years since, it seems that assessment was actually a bad rap. Not reported at the time was that Rozelle had actually called his USF classmate, who was Kennedy's press secretary (Pierre Salinger) and was told that the Bobby Kennedy's thought was that the country needed the games that Sunday. In the many years between that weekend and his passing, Pete Rozelle never said a word in his defense, even after a disgruntled fan sucker-punched him over it, that tragic weekend in Yankee Stadium.
There is a reason why Pete Rozelle's story matters greatly in discussing how important it is to manage a hotel asset's reputation. It was because of the words he heard while attending summer day camp as young boy. The campers had gathered for ''a little talk'' by one of the counselors, who pointed out that ''Character is what you are . Reputation is what people think you are. If your reputation is bad, you might as well have bad character - the one is useless without the other.''
Pete Rozelle lived that message throughout his entire career in PR and as NFL Commissioner. In this era of online reviews and rampant social media use, a bad reputation in a market is even harder to overcome and to turn around for hotel assets. Following are some ideas to assist this process.
REPUTATION MANAGEMENT in the 3D world
I was young in my Director of Sales career in 1998, for a property that played host to visiting teams coming to play one of America's football powerhouses. The early season opponent was dispatched as usual, in a game scheduled as a tune up game for one and a revenue source for the losers. Sadly, the whupping was accompanied by a great deal of vomiting on the sidelines, and afterwards the soon to be fired coach blamed the hotel in the media for allegedly giving his team food poisoning. Sadly nobody seemed to have cared about the subsequent stories, that clearly stated that it was a flu bug caught before the visitors arrived that was the culprit. I recollect pulling out the exculpatory evidence for months after the event to show catering clients.
Sadly, most properties are not lucky enough to have press coverage that absolves the operators of a property from a PR mess. Bad press at least has the hopes of a retraction, but bad word of mouth in a market lives on forever. In each hotel market, there is a bad name attached to an asset that never fades, even after a sale, re-flags, management changes and exorcisms. Occasionally it's the product of a public relations fail, or because a competitor simply plays dirty.
Usually its beginnings are based in some form of reality, such as one horror story where a Guest Service agent was seen cold cocking a restaurant server asking for change, as a group passed through the lobby. My personal favorite was a historic property that became a clubhouse for its town's "good old boys" to the extent that its outlets were boycotted by women in the community, because of their aversion to being groped by the septuagenarian members of the City Council.
Other issues to overcome may be adverse events such when a crime or accidental death occurs in a building. In an era where many assets are owned by absentee owners or those living overseas, xenophobia and bigotry and mean people can cause a toxic narrative to occur about an asset, and perhaps owners and key figures have had some epic human relations fails. And then there are those pesky anecdotal stories such as that chef immortalized on "You Tube" getting hammered with hotel guests, and refusing to go home.
All of these examples are really difficult situations to overcome. One can weep and wail in a sea of denial and anger, or one can decide to turn the situation around. For that there is a sole solution.
THE ART OF THE MEA CULPA.
The January 7th edition of the Harvard Business Review advocates for the art of the public apology. Since then we have seen a half hearted and insincere "mea culpa" go very badly as immortalized by Brian Williams. Through an effective and sincere effort to address past misdeeds, service fails, and miscellaneous errors, a hospitality organization can do much to repair past damage. Trying to employ what Nixon's team termed a "limited hangout" strategy, seldom works. Through the issues with Roger Goodell's handling of the Ray Rice controversy, the NFL leaned by the time of "Deflategate", that no matter how good the PR team, there is only one chance to tell the truth.
Like it or not, we are often in a position of apologizing for past sins to a variety of audiences. They could be offended individuals, community leaders and opinion makers, or corporate clients. Though the failings of the past may not be ours in terms of commission, we "own" them all in having to make amends. As a consequence, a PR strategy needs to include consideration of some often inconvenient truths.
For a one time slip, a timely public apology is a great start. For those situations caused by repeated failures, the only answer is identifying as many offended parties as possible. Screwing up is a part of the human experience, and a property consisting of all-too-human beings is going to have its share of failures. Being able to address these moments is a rare commodity in the business planet. And if one is persistent enough, the original sin will be mitigated by the perception of an organization trying to redeem itself.
The devil in the details is the ongoing commitment an organization has in changing and mending its ways. As the saying goes, one has only one opportunity to get a second chance.
MANY BLESSINGS - NOEL