Turning Around on the Highway to Hades

Social media is a blessing and a curse for the travel and hospitality industry. On one hand, it’s very easy to reach potential customers and for them to share their experiences. Sites like Trip Advisor let travelers, and adventure-seekers write about the great service or fantastic experience they had. Potential customers can pin photographs from your website and share their enthusiasm for a location with their friends, enticing them to click over and book their own vacations or tables.

Black-birdYet there’s a dark side to social media that we’re painfully aware of: these sites, along with Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media, can quickly spread the word about bad service – and upend the business. According to UK-based Four Pillars, 32 percent of US travelers blog about their experiences, http://bit.ly/1MSdY0q 46 percent of travelers as a whole post online hotel reviews after their vacations, and 40 percent post restaurant reviews. With 70 percent of global consumers pegging online reviews as the second most trusted form of advertising, it’s no surprise that after researching their travel on social media, 52 percent change their travel plans.

The worst part, however, is the way an incident could spiral out of control. Bedbugs, bad food, bad service – anything can take flight and become a social media crisis. But it’s possible to mitigate the problem – if you take action quickly.

1. Delay – or cancel – social media operations as normal.
When customers are happy, scheduled posts are a great way to engage and make sure you appear at the top of your customers’ news feeds. But when a crisis is coming down the pike, it’s very important to review scheduled posts and maybe halt them altogether, depending on the nature of the crisis. Customers can be sensitive, particularly if tragedy is involved. What may be funny in one context could be wildly offensive in another, so it might make sense to put the kibosh on posts until the crisis blows over. That gives you the chance to direct your efforts to unifying your message and getting it out there, whatever it may be. This is also a good time to put the brakes on paid social promotions, which can confuse your customers.

Once you’ve managed to control the crisis, you can revisit those scheduled posts to make sure they still fit with your messaging and make sure they’re not going to re-open old wounds. Keep a very close eye on your channels to make sure the crisis is actually over.

2. Make a captain’s announcement.
An airplane’s pilot always makes an announcement during in-flight turbulence, and it’s a great example to follow. After you’ve paused your scheduled posts, craft a captain’s announcement to let customers know they’re being heard and the situation is being addressed. If you’re responding to individual social media posts with it, make sure you tailor it to each complaint and each person. Your announcement should acknowledge that there is a problem, and that you’re working on a response. Let your customers know when and where they can find an update – direct them to your website or blog – and then make sure you follow up with a post at the time you specified.

3. Put out the fire at its source.
All it can take is one person to fan the flames and send your business up in smoke. That one person could be posting about terrible service – or bedbugs, cockroaches, unsanitary conditions, or anything unsavory. It could be true, or it could be false, but no matter the problem, there’s a chance it can be stopped with personal attention. Try to actually speak to the person who’s upset. Be compassionate, and just ask the customer to tell you about the experience. From there, take notes: whatever the customer is saying is very valuable feedback. Let the customer know that you’re hearing what they’re saying, and follow up with what you say you’ll do. Remember that empty apologies will just fan the flames, but actions and resolutions douse them and may turn an angry customer into a brand advocate.

Like wildfire, though, social media crises can spread. You’ll want to do the equivalent of setting control fires around the crisis and get everyone in a concentrated area, like a blog or forum, to answer questions, as well as head to the area where the problem is. For example, it might just be a Facebook problem. Set up a post or discussion board, post a link to it, and provide thoughtful responses. That will take the problem off TripAdvisor, Facebook, and other channels and allow everyone, including the customers, a chance to be heard.

4. Carefully plan responses.
No matter what the problem is, if the response to the crisis seems flippant, it will only enrage customers. The travel and hospitality companies that survive social media problems are the ones that own up to their mistakes. They take responsibility and avoid empty apologies, and they immediately move into action to correct mistakes. They don’t make excuses.

The only time it’s okay to explain what happened is after you’ve already taken responsibility, e.g., “We apologize for closing the pool and inconveniencing our guests. A water pump broke, and the pool wasn’t filtering properly, causing a sanitation issue.” Make sure your response is humble; in travel, people are already stressed from airport hassles and hoping that your service will relax them. It’s key to project the human side that you work so hard to bring to your day-to-day interactions with your customers.

And make sure you’re acknowledging your customer’s experience. They’re human, too, and they want to be heard. They want to know that you’re taking them seriously; be conversational but make sure you’re demonstrating empathy in every interaction.

5. Maintenance is for more than aircraft.
Now that the crisis is managed, it’s not enough to just sit back and hope another one doesn’t crop up. Like an aircraft, ongoing maintenance of your social media channels, reviews, and Trip Advisor reviews is key. Follow up and monitor these channels, replying as appropriate, to mitigate future crises.

Depending on the crisis, the media may also take an interest. It’s key to have your PR team on board with you to correct any incorrect coverage and make sure your message is consistent in social media and in the press. And make sure you’re reaching out to bloggers; they’re instrumental in rebuilding goodwill.

We hope you enjoyed this adapted excerpt from The CMO’s Social Media Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Leading Marketing Teams in the Social Media World, by Peter Friedman. To read more, download a free PDF version http://bit.ly/1M5p17N, or buy the hardback or ebook via online booksellers http://amzn.to/1W3E1Yp.

Peter Friedman

Peter Friedman is the CEO and Chairman of LiveWorld, and the author of The CMO’s Social Media Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide For Leading Marketing Teams in the Social Media World, from which this article was excerpted.