Friday, July 17, 2015


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. 


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 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. 


Wednesday, July 15, 2015


“Should you find yourself the victim of other peoples bitterness, ignorance, smallness, or insecurities, Remember this, things could be much worse. You could be one of them!” - Author Unknown

One of my guilty pleasures is watching reruns of JAG, which was a cross between "A Few Good Men" and "Top Gun". The NCIS franchise was a "spin off." Ten years on after the final episode, the JAG groupies ("shippers") are still online pining for resolution of the ever abortive romance between the show's main characters played by David James Elliott (Harm) and the recovering OT 7 Scientologist Catherine Bell, (Mac) . (Bonus: Ms. Bell is featured in this cultic classic from the Tom Cruise cult. )

One lesson encountered by watching JAG is how similar the plot lines are to real workaday lives.  I read these anecdotes and realize that real civilian life is not exempt from the same brand of toxicity that the fictional Navy Judge Advocate General Office experienced with the infamous Lieutenant Loren Singer, USN. As an ambitious JAG advocate, Singer (Nanci Chambers) was defined by a scorched earth campaign to further her career by any means needed. She was in a protracted battle with the other characters, who did not trust her, and were horrified by working a case on which she was lead chair. My favorite Singer moment was when she falsely claimed to be Jewish to win a case involving a Marine who went AWOL to serve in a kibbutz. More infamously, Singer attacked a pillar character (Harriet) in court by leveraging her miscarriage. (In a very popular later episode, Harriet got to punch out Singer..)

The writers implied that Singer had an excuse - she had allegedly been abused as a child. As it transpired, she had an active social life, having affairs with Harm's Russian half-brother, the smarmy CDR Theodore Lindsey, and a third unidentified man who was the father of her baby.  Singer was killed off, falling into a river and eventually drowning. After a few months on ice, her badly decomposed body ended being "up a tree" in Potomac Park, thus providing the backdoor pilot for JAG's spin-off series (NCIS).  

Most of us do not get to have a screenwriter balance our scales. We all have horror stories.  They may range from trivial offenses to the good old outright evil like that epitomized by the toxic Lt. Singer.  The following anecdote comes fresh from my inbox, and come with the usual disclaimers: names and places are obscured , and are not auto-biographical (thankfully) in this case .


Taffy has mere months in hospitality, but has prospered by power in a vacuum. Due to a succession of short-time managers. this "jewel in the rough", is hardly ready for Tiffany's. Facilitated by a broader dysfunction,  this "indispensable employee" has leveraged her unique combination of cornpone and BS  to garner yet another ill advised promotion.

Allegedly "overworked" by inevitably "lazy" bosses, and  chronically underwhelmed by her co-workers, "Taffy's" personal ailments and drama have become the property's center of gravity.  In the litany of the evangelical world "Taffy" inhabits, reference is occasionally made to those souls possessing a "sweet spiritual fragrance". My correspondent makes a convincing case this self proclaimed secular saint carries a spiritual fragrance more conversant with roadkill on a hot Texas road.

One person undermining each manager and co-worker they encounter is often only the start of the damage. Hannah Arendt and others have written of the "banality of evil", in an attempt to explain Nazi-ism. In this case, there seems to be an ad hoc and feral leadership structure,  and this has had the effect of potentially good team members turning into bullies by one unchecked bad example.  Or as my opening quote cautions against, they have chosen to become "one of them." 

Buzzards feast on the carnage created by their destruction. In this case it's vacancies on the organization chart. As can be surmised, an exodus has begun of the quiet and professional team members.  When certain inmates are given free reign over the asylum,  things disintegrate as mob rule trumps all reason. Obviously this property is the victim of a leader, who has delegated power to someone who is unsuited by experience and character to have authority. While "Taffy" has risen on the organization chart, so have her sycophants. Though the  hotel metrics have crashed, and the Trip Advisor reviews make for surreal reading, the next most toxic team members are now anticipating impending promotions. For now they are reaping the benefits of being "one of them." 


From a decade or more of watching JAG reruns, I became an admirer of Admiral Albert Jethro Chegwidden. The "Old Man" was both the Navy's top uniformed lawyer, and a hands-on manager. As a former SEAL, "A.J." came across as "hard-nosed" and as the Navy's JAG, "followed the book". But he was both loyal and fiercely protective of those under his command, and as the stereotypical "hard nosed boss" with a heart of gold, had ample occasion to demonstrate his caring.

Like "Taffy", Loren Singer sacrificed all integrity in the name of trying to get ahead.  Over the years the Admiral had to have seen seen those types of people come and go, and certainly showed his chops as a SEAL. Though Singer was an archetypical character, the Admiral seemed unable to assure this evil character left the JAG Corps, even after several seasons of toxic games. Singer being found hanging from a tree may have taken care of her bad karma on the show,  but it always seemed like a leadership fail on the series. (At least until one considers that Singer's demise on JAG opened the door to the NCIS franchise.)

Chances are, if the Admiral was advising us about real business life, he would advocate a culture of zero tolerance for those inherently dishonest, disloyal, and otherwise despicable. Those who are insecure, or ignorant, or bitter and entitled would be given orders to serve as an officer aboard a garbage scow, or be sent to the brig. In a trade defined by an officer's honor,  especially in the Navy of A.J. Chegwidden, integrity is forever.  It should be that way in the places where we as leaders have influence too. 

Gandhi wrote that the way of truth and love always wins. Even absent the talents of great screenwriters, the truth always does come out. Though both fictional characters and real people believe they are getting away with it for the moment (or a season or two),  Karma always does catch up, though sadly the timeframe may not be to our liking. But like the other characters on JAG who endured Loren Singer, and unlike those following "Taffy" into the abyss, we have the choice to not be "one of them!”






Sunday, July 12, 2015


A few days ago, I was driving across the desert expanse from El Paso to El Centro, when the radio told of the loss of yet another troubled Hollywood soul. Though we do not know for certain how it was that Can't Buy Me Love's Amanda Peterson would leave us so young, the strands of the story certainly pointed to another saga of meth addiction killing beauty and talent and all that is good. Watching yet another memorial video for yet another victim of the untreated depression that often leads to this sad end, reminds one of how wastefully failed the endless "war on drugs" truly is. 

Through Breaking Bad, we learned that places in the Intermountain West like Amanda's Greeley, Colorado home are being defined by the meth epidemic, and the effects on places like my adopted hometown of Prescott is light years worse than ever. Having run a property in an area where a huge percentage of the workforce is either addicted or in rehab, my greatest struggles were tied to addressing the fallout of a predecessor's laissez-faire attitude to the problems he bought by hiring almost all his workforce directly from "recovery homes" of questionable efficacy.  Many others were trapped in another great addictive saga, good old demon rum. Hospitality companies do usually perform pre-hire drug tests ,  though not always consistently. In areas where the labor market is tight and positions are hard to fill, hiring standards often decline in the name of maintaining staffing levels. Sadly, the biggest substance abuse issue many operators encounter is  the  consumption of very legal liquor at work. 

We read most often about drugs in the workplace, while in practice the biggest obstacle is keeping the keys to the liquor cabinet secure. Proximity to spirits is a huge challenge to those managing bars and banquet operations, often due to lax monitoring of actual "pour costs" in these operations. One of my greatest shocks in my career was inheriting a $500,000 slip and fall claim from a wedding reception, where a team member fell, broke her hip, and none of the four managers on staff were sober enough to call for timely assistance. Though we had the good fortune to not have these "supervisors" on the payroll upon arrival, it took months for the new management team to curtail the open and hidden use of liquor on the property. Though one must search far and wide for an employee handbook that does not cite drinking at work as a prohibited activity, the level of tolerance in hospitality is unfathomably high. Study after study indicates a corollary between workforce sobriety and property performance.  Sadly, abuse issues are often hard to address within the context of employment law, especially if the consumption occurs before work or is executed in obscurity. In the following case study a reader has shared with us , it's worse if the top dog needs a "hair of the hound." 


DISCLAIMER:  As noted elsewhere in this blog, though case study vignettes are based on real events, identities and locales are intentionally obscured and as such, are expressly non autobiographical . 

"I knew we had a problem when the guy appeared at check in, looking like an unmade bed, and toting his Game Boy" the hotel gossip "Tammy" writes. Even in his first days at the branded property, "John" was often missing from his office, purportedly dealing with medical issues. Besides the sartorial deficiencies of wrinkled shirts and wrinkled and dingy khakis, it was immediately obvious that "John" had a jaundiced look in his eyes. "He looks like he has a late stage case of hepatitis", another team member chimes in, "and  I swear he is sweating vodka through his pores." 

As time went on, things began to "fall to the floor." Guests departed and complaints mounted. "First, I am a (Very high level) member of (......) rewards. ...after over 150 nights by our company, the manager couldn't return a call about a rate question. " Service degraded, as stable team members departed from a sinking ship. Guests and clients would ask to speak to "John" who was either in his room or otherwise unavailable. Managerial dress standards declined from barely business casual, to cargo shorts. Always cutting "Tammy" writes of her bemusement in viewing a Linked in profile picture apparently taken while driving, while confessing how the stress level caused her to "faint at work." Other team members found out how dangerous to their paycheck bothering "John" about a business issue could be while otherwise occupied, which became the norm. A disciplinary action taken against a team member calling his domicile, while seeking to avoid hundreds of dollars in guest relocation expense, sent the immediate message this "hands on" manager, was not to be bothered. And yes, the expletives are deleted.

Though there may be no apparent substantiation to claims John's management style was epitomized in Kevin Willmott's CSA,  a culture of entitlement certainly has seemed to ensue. And it's difficult to sort through anecdotes similar to one alleging "John" and the hotel's new "first lady" really greeted his engineers barely clothed when they were called to repair a minor guest room issue. What is not debatable is that long time team members are departing the scene, and that in the anarchy the few remaining who do care, are desperately seeking solutions. They are looking anywhere and everywhere for help. As can be imagined, the fish rotting from the head in Room #666 is not going to be much of a resource. 


"Coaching up" is always a bad place for a team member to reside in.  I’m somewhat torn here, for it sounds like this property has been very erratically managed historically, but on the other hand, drinking on the job is a big enough offense that no one is owed a warning, much less team member loyalty.   

Anyway, I think the team has two choices :

1. Have the management team speak to "John". Tell him the drinking needs to stop immediately, and things need to improve in X, Y, and Z ways including attendance, or else the matter will be escalated to the franchise and operator. It’s worth considering, though, that there might be an alcoholism problem here, particularly given the early morning drinking. Sadly, in this dynamic it possibly is going to bring a retaliation and in all probability all sorts of false "Back at ya" allegations. 

2. "Drop a dime" to the reporting chain and absolve themselves of guilt. Drinking on the job is such a major violation of trust and good sense for team members, that the other managers really aren’t responsible for the impact getting fired has on their "boss". General Managers who value their job security won’t sneak drinks on the job.  

Given the ethical questions , hard questions should be asked about why the situation has been allowed to play out this way.  Assuming that the allegations are true, the owners and team deserves managers who will come to work sober and perform at a high level. There are lots of unemployed Hotel GMs out there who would happily keep that side of the equation.  It’s not the staff's fault that someone decided not to, and the leaders collectively should make it clear that "John" needs to meet that bar right now, this very instant, or the operators should have the chance to replace him with someone who will.

Usually when a situation like this occurs or gets this out of control, it’s not the only management problem in that organization. So I’d recommend some collective soul-searching about their approach to hiring management in general, and especially on things such as their GMs asserting authority appropriately, and planning so the property is held never hostage to bad behavior again. Just because someone  occupies a heretofore tough position to hire, still does not mean an organization should be hostage to and dependent on someone who needs an intervention, as much as the property needs servant leadership.