Grading Thistle Hotels’s response to Twitter storm sparked by a gay guest
London’s largest hotel brand Thistle Hotel Group responded to a Twitter maelstrom on Sunday, in what immediately became a case study of a public relations crisis on social media.
Late on Saturday night, after midnight, customer Nick Hurley tweeted that he and his boyfriend had been treated homophobically by the front desk clerk at Thistle Hotel’s Barbican property.
Homophobic receptionist at @thistlehotels refused me & my bf our pre-booked double room. Insisted we take a “family” room w/ separate beds.
— Nick Hurley (@nickhurley) February 24, 2013
Hurley had 3,000 followers. Within 12 hours, his complaint spread like wildfire, being retweeted 2,000 times.
Note that Hurley’s tweet automatically assumes he was mistreated.
This assumption was repeated, without fact-checking, by 2,000 people, broadcasting a message that’s potentially damaging to the brand.
Twelve hours after the tweet, Thistle Hotels’ Twitter account acknowledged the issue.
@nickhurley We’re sorry to hear this. We take matters like this very seriously. Please DM details to us so we can look into this immediately
— Thistle hotels (@ThistleHotels) February 24, 2013
Hours later, by 6pm, BBC News had picked up the story, whose first report (no longer online) emphasized the couple’s assumptions about what had happened. The report was followed by ITV News, which was more neutral.
We spoke by phone this morning withChris King, group head of communications for Thistle Hotels, for a timeline of what transpired.
The customer booked a double room via an online travel agency (OTA).
But there was a technical failure, according to King, and the fact that the customer had requested a double bed was not communicated to the clerk at the front desk.
Because the customer checked in at 11:30 at night, the hotel had few vacancies left and, in particular, no double rooms, says King.
Had the customers arrived earlier, Thistle Hotels’ standard procedure would have been to contact other nearby properties to see if another location might have a vacant double room. But King says:
At that hour, it is not procedure to make such an offer, for a variety of reasons.
It remains unclear how the front desk employee told the guests the hotel had sold out of rooms with double beds.
What we do know is that, the next day, 12 hours after the customer posted the tweet, Thistle Hotels had identified the viral, and mostly negative, response from many Twitter users.
The company’s first step was to attempt to contact the customer. @nickhurley We’re sorry to hear this. We take matters like this very seriously. Please DM details to us so we can look into this immediately
Unfortunately, Twitter won’t allow users to send direct messages (DM) unless the user (in this case, the hotel owner) follows the person (i.e., the customer).
To say this differently: Hotels need to 1) follow the customer, temporarily 2) then make the request for a direct message. Otherwise, valuable time may be lost.
Thistle Hotels then scanned social media to find out who were the “influencers,” or users with large followings, who were driving and amplifying the debate.
It reached out to these influencers, such as Ben Summerskill, of UK gay rights group Stonewall, to inform them that the company took this issue seriously and was in the process of investigating it. Says King:
“You hope that by contacting these influencers and making sure they understand what the full picture is that that will help in terms of influencing what might appear online as the debate unfolds.”
@bensummerskill Our CEO wishes to make it clear that views of previous board members are not supported by the current management team.
— Thistle hotels (@ThistleHotels) February 24, 2013
At this point, it’s about common sense.
Number one, you acknowledge these customers are unhappy. Whatever the facts turn out to be, the customers felt they had an experience wasn’t acceptable, and it’s appropriate for you to agree with that.
But you also must be careful to make no judgments about your team until you’ve established what the facts are.
Thistle Hotels remained in constant contact with the couple involved throughout the day, mainly thru twitter initially and then separately through email and telephone.
The goals were to apologize and to let the customers understand what the company was doing internally to establish the facts. The company says it offered the couple a free night in one of its hotels as a gesture.
The company also let its followers know that it was following up. This is important. In the rush to communicate with the individuals, the rest of the community risks being accidentally left in the dark about what’s transpiring.
Many people have become cynical about PR responses, so it’s important to provide something substantive, with specific details, to show what’s actually happening and that you’re not merely mouthing words.
King’s advice to other hotel communications teams is simple:
Whilst you should have a specific plan for PR emergencies, like who ought to be involved and what their roles are, each situation is completely different and ought to be treated as a separate issue.
You can’t plan or write a manual for dealing with every eventuality.
Before I joined this company in December, the brand had been using a PR firm to monitor social media activity.
We’ve since had someone internally monitoring Facebook and Twitter, and it was a staff person monitoring internally that alerted us.
We managed the response internally, too. That’s important. Before I came on, the PR agency would have handled the crisis response.
In my view, you need an in-house person, someone more hands on centrally, to handle the response to an issue of this nature. Whether the monitoring happens internally or externally, the response should be handled internally.
Overall, Thistle Hotels appears to have responded this social media crisis in an exemplary fashion.
Sean O’Neill is a New Jersey-based reporter for Tnooz. He is also a daily contributor of consumer news to LonelyPlanet.com.
He used to work for BBC Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and Kiplinger's, and used to live in London, New York City, and Washington, DC.