Five Steps to Take When Talking About a Travel Disaster

You may never be called on to give a White House press briefing, but with unsettled world events an increasing part of the travel landscape, it’s important to know how to talk about a crisis. At the inaugural Secure Tourism Summit, sponsored by the U.S. Travel Association, Travel Agent got some quick tips for how go about talking to the public when disaster strikes.

At the event Ari Fleischer, who was the White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush during 9/11, laid out a five-step plan for crisis communications. He calls it “THRDD” (pronounced “thread”). While much of the discussion involved how to deal with the media and hold press conferences, the general principles can hold true when talking to clients or anyone in the immediate aftermath of a disaster:

T: The truth. “The most important thing for you to do when something goes wrong is establish ground truth,” Fleischer says. Find out exactly what took place and what the facts are.

“No sugarcoating it, no making it right because it will help you to sound better,” Fleischer warns.

H: Homework. When a crisis hits, never talk until you’ve done your homework, Fleischer says.

“As soon as something goes wrong, you will be under immense pressure” to make a statement, Fleischer says. “If you respond before you’re ready to speak, it will be a disaster. They will ask you 30 questions and you’ll be able to answer 29 of them.”

Before speaking, Fleischer says to know everything that happened, including how it went wrong, and why it went wrong. In particular, know if the crisis involved terrorism, or if terrorism can be ruled out.

R: Report. “Think like a reporter,” Fleischer says. “Reporters will ask you the toughest, most cynical questions that will ever come up. ‘Whose fault is it?’ ‘Will you resign’?”

D. Define your message. “If you owned the newspaper that was covering this, what headline do you want to put on that story?” Fleischer says.    

Headlines should be realistic and, importantly, short.

“If you cannot come up with your own headline in five, six or seven short words, you’re overcomplicating it,” says Fleischer. “Chances are you’re overcomplicating it.”

D. Discipline. “At that press conference, the press is going to try to knock you off you’re game,” Fleischer says. “They’ll try to ask the hardest questions to either find out what aren’t you telling me, what are you hiding, or to try to make this a bigger story.”

Adhere to the message you’ve developed, Fleischer says.

Many of these steps are best practiced before disaster even strikes.

“You should do drills with your staff,” Fleischer says. “If you think there is a situation that you think could realistically come up, where you’re the person who will have to speak, have your staff walk you through it and com up with that headline with your creative team.”