Tourism PROs generally only have to deal with travel writers. But that changes as soon as a coach crashes or a hurricane hits. The moment a crisis comes along, journalists from other pages suddenly get involved.
This is the point where promoting the destination stops being the focal point and a crisis management plan kicks in. Ensuring the media know what is really happening is imperative.
In the wake of September's Hurricane Ivan, BGB Communications took The Sunday Times and Travel Trade Gazette to Jamaica on behalf of its client Sandals. Stops were pulled out, with the journalists meeting the country's prime minister. 'They saw that tourist areas were largely unaffected,' says BGB managing director Debbie Hindle.
Taking fast action
Elsewhere, Brighter PR countered the negative image of Middle East countries after the Iraq war by taking journalists to meet members of Jordan's royal family on behalf of the country's tourist board. It did the same for South Africa in 1994 after Nelson Mandela was elected president to counter tourist fears of potential civil war there - all telling indicators of how vital tourist dollars are to some countries.
Travel disasters come in a variety of grisly forms. Tour operator Inghams says it knew within ten minutes that six Britons on one of its coaches had been killed in Austria in August. The speed of response seems typical of well-organised PR operations: its media team put out a holding statement, set up a call centre with emergency numbers for worried relatives, issued an initial press release and facilitated management access for broadcast interviews. Confused situations, particularly when overshadowed with bereavement, need to be handled with sensitivity. PR manager Lynsey Devon says: 'If information coming through could not be backed up, it wasn't released.'
When PROs have hard facts they want to disseminate quickly, The Press Association (PA) news agency is an obvious point of contact. 'We contact PA and get as much information out as possible,' says McCluskey International CEO Judy McCluskey. 'Positive, proactive information is a lot better than speculation or people sitting in a newsroom saying: "It's a quiet night, let's beef something up".'
When dealing with the media, honesty really is the only policy. British Airways has been recently beset with staff problems that have left passengers stranded and angry. 'It is important for firms to admit when they make mistakes. We got our staff recruitment wrong and we said so,' says BA director of corporate comms Iain Burns. 'Clearly negative publicity can be damaging to any firm's reputation. We apologised immediately and have put plans in place to sort out the problems with a view to not have a repeat performance.'
Collecting and communicating as much data as possible immediately is crucial in a crisis situation. 'With tour operators you have to have statements prepared for fires, food poisoning, coach crashes and even missing baggage,' says McCluskey.
Travel journalists do not always seem to appreciate the fruit of such planning, however. Monthly title Wanderlust editor Lyn Hughes says: 'It would be nice if PROs were more proactive (when a crisis hits). It always seems to be us calling them because we're doing a story or we've had readers on the phone, and then the PR agency is on the defensive. The pity of it is, it is very rare that a PRO would approach us and say: "This is what you can tell your readers".'
Part of the issue here may be that events will have moved on by the time Wanderlust's next edition comes out. But there is not often such an excuse with weekly supplements. The Times Saturday travel section editor Cath Urquhart says contact from PROs in crisis situations is welcome but that there has not been a great deal recently about events in parts of the Caribbean. She explains: 'We have had some round-robin emails but it hasn't been an overwhelming response.'
So it seems that journalists - even non-travel specialists - will often be sympathetic to PROs who feed them as much information as possible.
But damage can still be done by the time the spotlight moves away from a region or company. 'They can put a picture in the consumer's mind and then move on to a police strike or something,' says Brighter PR managing director Steve Dunne. 'You've now got to get the agenda back on stream but have to work doubly hard with travel editors and well-known freelances to shift the emphasis onto the features pages.'
While it is undoubtedly a tricky commercial balancing act for PROs promoting some areas of the Caribbean at the moment, part of the reason there are great deals on offer for tourists to the region in summer is that weather can be poor. Even so, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation must have been aghast at headlines suggesting the entire region was adversely affected by Ivan. 'The clearest thing from the sub editor's point of view is to talk about the (Caribbean) region as a whole,' says Hindle. Yet in an area that spans the equivalent of the distance from London to Athens, relatively few islands and resorts were actually affected.
Bad publicity can certainly affect a destination. After wrong reports in the media about the extent of devastation from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida Keys Tourism Council spokesman Andy Newman says it took three months of PR to get tourism back to pre-storm levels.
And following August's floods in Boscastle, the Cornwall Tourist Board had to ensure the media knew the affected area was very small and that the rest of the county - and indeed most of Boscastle - continued to operate normally. The UK media were largely sympathetic. But the board had to work hard with VisitBritain and PR agencies in Germany, Belgium and Holland to counter what it saw as distortion in overseas media coverage of the flooding.
Fundamentally, there is no substitute for helping journalists when a crisis breaks. As Hughes reiterates, the crisis situation in a particular country is of major interest to the media. PROs need to ensure they give out more information to journalists saying exactly what has happened, rather than waiting for journalists to come to them.
HANDLING TRAVEL CRISES
IAIN BURNS, DIRECTOR OF CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS, BRITISH AIRWAYS - 'We staff up our 24-hour press office, we dedicate people to work closely with the airline operation and overseas agencies. We aim to issue media and employee statements as soon as possible and on a regular basis each day, and to provide a broadcast spokesperson as soon as practically possible.
Last month we experienced operational problems that were caused by a combination of factors - some within our control. We apologised unconditionally and immediately to the public through the media. When events are outside our control, such as extreme weather or the closure of runways, we simply explain the facts and tell our customers and the wider public what we are doing about it. If we have an announcement to make that we feel reflects well on the airline's decisions to resolve a situation, then we will proactively brief the media and explain the company's position.'
ANDY NEWMAN, DIRECTOR, STUART NEWMAN ASSOCIATES - 'We have worked for the Florida Keys Tourism Council since 1980. If we are spending millions to attract visitors to the Florida Keys, we have to play a role in their safety. This season, hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan threatened the area. When Ivan was making a beeline for the Florida Keys, a complete evacuation was ordered. On our home page at fla-keys.com we had a graphic showing the track of the storm along with several stories about it and information about alternative accommodation in other parts of Florida. In effect, we were marketing competing tourist destinations.
We have an emergency communications booklet for the media with various contact numbers and I based myself with the emergency management director for the duration of the storm. We communicate to hotels through the local media and on our website. You must be specific and accurate.'
Teresa Timms, PR manager, Cornwall Tourist Board 'After the floods at Boscastle, we ensured that our website was up to date on a daily basis for visitors planning a visit to Cornwall with the latest information regarding access, accommodation, the coastal footpath, beaches etc. Our call-centre staff were fully briefed to ensure that a clear consistent message was issued to all enquirers - that the affected area was very small and that the rest of the county, and indeed most of Boscastle, continued to operate normally. We undertook a number of interviews for local and national radio and TV to reassure visitors. We worked closely with North Cornwall District Council and South West Tourism to ensure that all messages were clear, consistent and accurate.'