Before the web became pervasive, a dissatisfied customer would
share his or her displeasure with four or five close friends. Today,
that same customer can share displeasure with four or five thousand
people, the way Tom Farmer and Shane Atchison did after arriving at the
DoubleTree Club Hotel in Houston late one night, to find that their
guaranteed rooms had been given away.
Arriving at 2am, the two travelers were informed that there was no room
at the inn by Mike the night clerk, who explained, "Most guests don't
arrive at 2am," and apparently failed to grasp the meaning of
"guaranteed reservation." They eventually found rooms six miles away at
a Shoney's Inn.
I know all this because Tom and Shane created a 17-slide PowerPoint
presentation, complete with quotes from Mike and lots of neat charts,
and because one of my PR friends e-mailed it to me.
One slide shows Mike's projected career arc, from "rude hotel clerk" to
septic tank cleaner. Another breaks hospitality providers into four
quadrants, and puts DoubleTree in the "despises and mistreats
customers/heading for collapse" quadrant. Another offers the statistical
probability of winning the UK lottery (13,983,816 to 1), which is
apparently more likely than Tom and Shane returning to the DoubleTree in
You can find the entire presentation at
In the meantime, it's worth pondering the odds of something similar
happening to your company one day.
We live in an age when one well-placed idiot (like Mike) can cause great
damage to the reputation of an entire company.
And there are thousands of Mikes out there: Denny's used to employ
hundreds of them, it seems, until lawsuits from ill-treated
African-American customers forced the restaurant chain to change its
They are the ultimate proof that public relations is too important to be
left to PR people alone.
Just as a CFO can't ensure profitability if thousands of other employees
don't realize the importance of making the company profitable, even the
best PR person can't protect the corporate reputation unless people at
every level of the company - particularly those who often interact with
customers and other external stakeholders - understand that reputation
management is their job too.
The first responsibility of a senior PR executive is counseling senior
management. The second is creating the kind of culture in which every
single employee understands the importance of a good corporate
reputation, and realizes how his or her behavior contributes to that
In an era when information can be shared widely and freely, everyone who
works for your company is part of the PR department, like it or not.
Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business
for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation
He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of