Special Report: ‘Sorry’ shouldn’t be the hardest word

GalleryITCMS 2018

Ian Taylor reports from the International Travel Crisis Management Summit

Companies should say “sorry” when something serious goes wrong, according to one of the world’s leading experts in crisis response.

Robert Jensen (pictured), chief executive of Kenyon International Emergency Services, told the summit: “Saying sorry is never an admission of guilt. [But] when companies don’t say sorry it’s a problem.”

He insisted: “You can’t manage the media. You can’t manage the event. But you can manage your response. It’s not messaging that is important, it is responding and then communicating how you are responding.”

Jensen said: “There are three parts to a communications plan: acknowledge what has happened, say you’re responding and that your concern is for those directly affected.”

He added: “You need a plan, preparation, training and response. [But] your plan is not your response. You don’t plan for a crisis, you plan for the consequences.”

Jensen agreed with Tui head of corporate communications Martin Reicken who told the summit: “You need checklists.”

The Kenyon International chief also argued crisis-response teams should stop using taglines such as New York or Las Vegas is ‘strong’ following an incident, saying: “Everything is ‘strong’ now. People are starting to get tired of that.

“An incident is big to the people involved but not to everyone else in the world. Don’t focus on the headlines, focus on the people affected.”

Tui works through checklists

Tui has honed its crisis response to “working down checklists”, group head of corporate communications Martin Reicken told the summit.

Reicken said: “Crisis communications needs guidelines. But no one can work with a big handbook. Condense them – no more than 16 pages.”

He said: “In aviation, if something goes wrong you stay cool and work down a checklist. This is crucial. You have to train, but you need something [a checklist] to start. We have checklists for everything.”

Reicken told the summit: “There is a tendency in large organisations to say ‘It won’t happen’. Keeping awareness and building resilience is key. Every situation is different, but some things are the same.

“First, what is the severity of the crisis? Is it localised or does it threaten every market? Tui used to be 30 different brands, now it is just one. Our biggest asset is probably our brand. But if something fails it can have a huge impact.

“It is key to get in the game as quickly as possible. I can immediately activate the entire communications team with one click through an app on my phone. It notifies 90-plus communications staff.

“You have to have a fast response. Say: ‘We are aware. We are responding.”

He said: “Create a situation room – and create room to ask the right questions.” He recommended saying: “We are in a hurry, let’s sit down.”

Reicken previously worked at Lufthansa and was involved in the response to the Eurowings disaster when a pilot deliberately crashed an aircraft in the Alps in March 2015, killing 150 passengers and crew.

He said: “Social media were always ahead of the story and we were always responding rather than leading.” Partly in response, Tui had introduced Tui Communications Manager, he said, which logs every incident “with a full briefing. You need intelligence and you need one platform.”

Reicken added: “Plans are useless, but planning is essential – [and] plans are nothing without training.

“Don’t hide away if a crisis happens. Show your face. If you don’t have anything to say, say that. Crisis communications does not work from behind your desk.”

Avoid ‘too smooth’ communication

Professional media advisors can be “too smooth” in communicating during a crisis, according to South Africa Tourism chief executive Sisa Ntshona.

He told the summit how Cape Town had responded to a drought which threatened to paralyse the city early this year.

Ntshona said: “Cape Town had a three-year drought. It was not unique to Cape Town. Sydney had one, but we had a politician who went on TV and said ‘We have a crisis. Day Zero is upon us.”

While city authorities focused on attempts to cut water consumption in the city, he said: “We tried first to get water engineers to communicate. People could not understand what they were saying. Then we got media advisors in. But when the message is too smooth it feels like just another tagline.”

Instead, Ntshona said the city decided: “The issues of climate change are not unique to South Africa. We said to tourists ‘Don’t stay away, become part of the solution by coming and acting like a local’.”

He said: “Now the dams are back to 70% of capacity, but we can never go back to the old ways of using water. We don’t need to give communities a reason to hate tourists. Keep locals updated because you need them to play a role.”

ITCMS announces name change

The third International Travel Crisis Management Summit (ITCMS) in London last week will be the last as the name will change to the Global Travel & Tourism Resilience Council (GTTRC) Summit.

Announcing the change, ITCMS founder Daniela Wagner noted the event “has become the go-to platform for people to share experiences and develop partnerships”. But she said: “Destination countries want to be associated with resilience not crisis.”

Jamaica tourism minister Edmund Bartlett and former World Travel & Tourism Council secretary general Taleb Rifai will be founding directors of the GTTRC.

The first GTTRC Summit will be held in South Africa next May.

Wagner is head of international partnerships for Travel Weekly owner Jacobs Media Group and Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) regional director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

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