Winning in the Court of Public Opinion: Managing the Media in Hospitality Litigation

By William A. Brewer III Managing Partner, Bickel & Brewer | January 14, 2010

Mergers and acquisitions, disputes over management agreements, and fights for ownership of guest information. These are just some of the issues among today's hospitality industry headlines. As a lawyer often involved in these sorts of matters, we often must work with the news media - and manage the glare that follows high-profile hospitality issues. While many lawyers shy away from public comment on these matters, we believe that it is better to help our clients navigate the waters of public relations. In fact, we consistently recommend that our clients - whether managers, owners, investors or otherwise - work with the news media when involved in high profile hospitality disputes.

The Road Less Traveled

Proactive use of public relations in connection with litigation no doubt runs counter to the practice of many law firms and the hospitality clients they represent. Nonetheless, we welcome the public discussion of our cases and the merits of the dispute. In our view, we are hired as advocates not only to protect our clients' positions in the court of law, but to advance them in the court of public opinion. Throughout our practice, we've had the privilege of handling some of the hospitality industry's highest profile matters, lawsuits involving literally hundreds of millions of dollars. We have represented internationally known hotel franchisors, management companies, owners, developers and investors in many of the most closely watched legal disputes in the industry. These cases have been followed by leading business publications, trade magazines and investment journals, enabling us to develop the experience base that confirms winning a case in a public forum is as manageable as winning in court.

Taking Center Stage

When you work with the news media to communicate your client's point of view, you are reaching more than the reporter with whom you are working. The news media is the gateway to investors, analysts, regulators, customers, and employees. Thus, winning your case in the court of public opinion has the potential to ensure you receive fair and balanced treatment of the dispute by each of those constituents.

Taking center stage with a business publication or trade journal brings clarity and focus to your position, whether you are pursuing legal claims or defending a business or individual against them. To us, the process of trial advocacy is often bolstered when it is prefaced by the scrutiny and deliberation of intensive media inquiry.

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Guest Service: A Culture of YES

In a recent global consumers report, 97% of the participants said that customer service is a major factor in their loyalty to a brand, and 76% said they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them. And since there is no industry more reliant on customer satisfaction than the hotel industry, managers must be unrelenting in their determination to hire, train and empower the very best people, and to create a culture of exceptional customer service within their organization. Of course, this begins with hiring the right people. There are people who are naturally service-oriented; people who are warm, empathetic, enthusiastic, pleasant, thoughtful and optimistic; people who take pride in their ability to solve problems for the hotel guests they are serving. Then, those same employees must be empowered to solve problems using their own judgment, without having to track down a manager to do it. This is how seamless problem solving and conflict resolution are achieved in guest service. This willingness to empower employees is part of creating a Culture of Yes within an organization.  The goal is to create an environment in which everyone is striving to say “Yes”, rather than figuring out ways to say, “No”. It is essential that this attitude be instilled in all frontline, customer-facing, employees. Finally, in order to ensure that the hotel can generate a consistent level of performance across a wide variety of situations, management must also put in place well-defined systems and standards, and then educate their employees about them. Every employee must be aware of and responsible for every standard that applies in their department. The April issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some leading hotels are doing to cultivate and manage guest satisfaction in their operations.