When Brand Meets Tragedy
How do you prepare for a crisis? A tragedy? How do you prepare your people? Remember your people are your brand, right? How do you ensure the people are getting the right message, that you are handling the spray of inaccuracies on social media and much more.
Chad and Joel were lucky enough to again sit down with Cathy Tull, former CMO of Las Vegas, but this time on a more somber note to talk about preparing and handling a tragedy.
A very inspiring story about the city, brand, and moreover the people of Las Vegas.
PODCAST TRANSCRIPTION sponsored by:
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Chad: This Cult Brand podcast series was created to demonstrate that a brand at its very foundation is built of its people, and I can't think of a story that people, especially in marketing and branding, need to hear more. We're joining the discussion with Cathy Tull, who was the CMO of Los Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Cathy, you were in the center of something that happened that was devastating on October 1st of 2017, that rocked the U.S. and also a destination that people trusted. There was a mass shooting that happened in Vegas. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you really dealt with it?
Cathy: You know what's interesting is that the event happened on a Sunday evening at a country music festival and the tragedy took 58 lives, but it really is just so unexpected. Vegas is known for entertainment and we're considered a very safe destination. And so to have this happen in your hometown is shocking. And I was actually in Italy at the time with some other people celebrating our, we had 50th birthday celebration, and I got a call ... It was in the morning in Italy and I got a call that said there had been a shooting and we weren't sure how bad it was. And so we talked about what we needed to do and bring the team together and started to pull people together to see what was going on, and the one thing that I look back on and think that time, one of the greatest things we did was we just started to pull the team together before we knew absolutely what was happening, because as you can imagine, it was complete chaos, in that people weren't sure whether there was one shooter or more than one shooter.
Cathy: What was happening, there was a lot of things on the ground where people were running and showing up in other places, and so there was a moment in time where everyone knew something really bad was happening, but trying to pin down exactly what was happening took a bit of time. And so I think one of the things that we did that really helped us along the way was bring a unified crisis communication team together, which we had planned for ... Everyone has a crisis response manual. We had one that we had just happened to update the previous summer and so everyone knew who was supposed to be there. And I think one of the things you need to realize is you can plan for a crisis, but when it happens, not everyone is sitting where you think they're going to be sitting.
Cathy: So I was involved from Italy, some of my colleagues were in New York, there were some that were in Montana fly fishing. I mean, people were kind of spread to the winds when this all happened. And so bringing that team together and making sure that you have enough people you can count on really is what helped us be successful in the communications efforts.
Chad: How did you find out about it? Did you get a call? Did you see something on the internet?
Cathy: I got a call. So the head of the account team at the time called me, our agency, R&R Partners, the head of the account team there gave me a call and said there had been a shooting and they weren't sure how bad it was, but it was just coming through all social media, starting to be bombarded by something was happening. I talked to her a bit about what she knew. I said to her, okay, start getting the team together. And the plan had always been to have the team form at the agency, which is in a suburb of Las Vegas, knowing that if something ever happened, it would likely happen close to the strip, and our offices are close to the strip at the convention center, so the idea was to bring everyone together in a place that wouldn't be in the middle of anything that might be happening.
Cathy: She started to assemble the team, I started to make phone calls to some people I knew. My sister was actually at the concert, so I called my niece first to see where they were and they were actually in a hallway at the Motel Six, hysterical. I hung up with her and told her to stay there until I called her back and I called a friend of mine who owns the ambulance company that was doing the standby service at the concert and I've known him for 30 years, and I called him and I said, how bad is it? And he said, it's the worst thing I've ever seen. At that point we knew that there really was a huge problem and so I called back to the team and by then they were all gathering and starting to assemble information and create this makeshift war room where we could monitor what was happening in real time and make sure that we were sharing recommended messaging and that we were trying to correct any misinformation and really get a handle on what was happening.
Chad: Wow, that's huge. I mean, because you literally needed a war room to start to get proper information out to the people, right?
Cathy: Yeah, at the end of the day, you think about everything's happening, you need to have as many people in the room at the same time as you can and then make sure that you're monitoring what people are saying, what's correct, you're running down information so that you're not repeating messages that are incorrect. It's really important that you know who you need on that team before you have the team and who are the people that, if I'm not there ... What I did for example, because I was in Italy, I could call in and be part of the conversation, but I also called somebody that I relied on, my number two and said, okay, I need you to go and physically be sitting there, so that we had physical bodies in the room and then we also had people that were calling in on the phone joining because they were not here at the time that this was all starting to happen. And so making sure that you have some depth in your crisis team, and I think that was one of the things that really served us well.
Chad: Can you describe the room at all? Was this chaos? Was there someone in charge? What were some of the things that were most pressing in terms of what we should do and what sort of strategy we should formulate going forward?
Cathy: So the room itself, it was a large conference room and so there's a big table and so everyone is able to sit around the table and there really was a lead, one of the point people, the head of the account team at the agency, really took the lead of making sure we had the right people there and we could start to logically walk through what happened, what we knew, what we didn't know, what we needed to know. We immediately pulled down all advertising. As you can imagine, all this is happening, you don't want, what happens here, stays here messaging to be out there. That evening we took down ... The agency took down all of the paid advertising and made sure that we just went dark for a bit, because it was important that we could control the message. And so those were really the very first steps, was trying to get our arms around what was happening, what was real, what wasn't real, and making sure that anything we could control as far as messaging, we were either pulling down if it was not appropriate to be running at that time or we were using those assets to push out information that we needed to help push out for the community.
Chad: From from the standpoint of, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, how close did you work, or did you already have lines set up with the police department and with media and so on and so forth, to be able to once again control the message to ensure that the right information was actually getting out?
Cathy: Yeah, we had developed very good relationships with both metropolitan police department and the local media. We've worked with the police department before, we had worked with the sheriff, and so we were well-positioned to make sure that we had open communication lines. And then we also were making sure that we were talking to our resort partners. It was really kind of a hub of communication to make sure that we could have messaging, we could send it out, we could talk to the resort partners and everyone could be on the same page with what we were doing. And I think that is one of the most important things is making sure that A) you're not surprised by messaging that's coming out from someone else and B) that you're coordinating as much as you can. The team really worked outside of some traditional roles to help coordinate some level of community response.
Cathy: In the days following the shooting, there were opportunities for citizens to ... Residents of Las Vegas to come in and donate. People really wanted to be able to do something. The morning after the shooting, the line around the Red Cross was around the corner, because people didn't know what else to do other than to go give blood. And so then there was a space set up at the convention center where people could go donate items that people were going to need, families were going to need as they started to come in for their loved ones, and so there was an opportunity to really kind of manage that by working with the outside community. And those are relationships you have to have before the crisis hits.
Joel: Cathy, was there any sort of strategy around social media? I'm sure that was just mass confusion in terms of externally people commenting and saying things about the city as well as what was going on, I'm sure internally within the city, a lot of things were going on in social media. What kind of plan did you guys have to utilize or damage control through social media channels during that first few days of of the tragedy?
Cathy: The team was really making sure that we were monitoring social media, which was really important, so we knew what people were saying so that we could respond with messaging that was correct. The other thing was really making sure that there was a lot of media that had congregated on the strip near the site, and so the team actually went down and handed out information to the reporters that were there so that you could build relationships with the people that were there. You could also make sure that they had the correct information. Really monitoring the social media and the ability to respond with correct information is really important. And then proactively going out there with, okay here are things we can tell you. And really letting, obviously on the investigation, Metro was the lead in making sure that we could refer people to the right context there. If there were a media that wanted more information, they were making sure they were getting it from the right source is also important.
Chad: So stepping back a little bit and talking about this podcast is about Cult Brands, but we need to understand that brands are really cemented in the people. Can you talk a little bit about how the people really are the ones who embody the brand, especially around this type of a crisis?
Cathy: The thing was amazing to us was that we had taken down all media and there was a conversation around, okay, what ... We have to say something obviously as a brand and you have to say something that's most appropriate and what is that? And so the first thing we did was reached out to Andre Agassi, who is actually a resident of Las Vegas, grew up here, and the agency created a spot that just was a spot that could go out there that just said, we're together in this. And so Andre agreed to record that spot, and so we started to push that out. And that was just a message of encouragement. And then as we talked about, okay, what comes next and what does the messaging look like, we noticed, because we were monitoring social media so closely, there was a lot of UGC, user generated content, that was coming out where people were very supportive of Las Vegas as a brand and as a city and saying, we love Vegas and this won't stop us from coming and we're here for you Vegas, and some really moving messages.
Cathy: And so what the agency really did was take those UGC spots and we reached out to people and asked if we could use their content and then stitch together some spots that really was reflecting what people were saying. Instead of us talking about Vegas as a brand and a city and it really was about people that had come here before and loved the city and that's where the cult-like following is so important, because they were talking about Vegas in a way that was really authentic and we were able to stitch together those pieces and use that user generated content to really reflect what people were saying, which was really more powerful than anything we could have created on our own.
Joel: Was there a worst case scenario in terms of what you guys thought about, I'm assuming that it sounds like the messaging worked sort of the the damage control through that, was their worst case scenario. I know that we never got to that, but assuming things really got bad, what were some of the things that maybe you thought about in terms of strategy to help control the damage that was being done?
Cathy: We really thought that we would have to do more transitional messaging than we actually did. One of the things that happened in between is that the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon and Half Marathon comes to Las Vegas and the fall of every year, and it was in November, scheduled for November, and there was conversations around do we continue to do the marathon? The competitive group was really sensitive to doing what was right for the community, and we said yes, we think it's really important that we still do that race now more so than ever, because people needed to have the visual that the city was still open, that we were open for business. This is a tourism based economy. If we lost the tourism base, it would really be devastating to the community as a whole, and so it was important that that happened.
Cathy: And they did a phenomenal job, really recalculating the route, because they wanted to make sure that they start an end line had been in the festival lot where the incident occurred, so obviously they couldn't start. And then there was a crime scene, so they had to move the start and end of the race. They also made sure that they were very appropriate in how it was reflected, so people did run by, they went down to the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, which brought them down by where the shooting had occurred. But there was just some beautiful music at the Welcome to Las Vegas sign so people could have that moment if they wanted it. And then they ran back by and went downtown and finished the race. And so for us, making sure that partners like that stayed in was really important in recalculating the city itself and that we were still open for business and that we were a safe destination.
Cathy: And the other thing that we did was research is always very important, and so we would make sure that we were talking to our visitors about how did they feel in making sure that travel intent, while it softened a bit, didn't fall off a cliff. That people did to feel like Las Vegas was a safe destination. That there wasn't a misperception about the strip being closed. There was some in the beginning misperception that the Southend of the strip was closed, which it wasn't. And that people were saying, well they wanted to come to Vegas, but they wanted it to be an appropriate time. And so postponing trips was important that we said, now is the time we need you. It is an appropriate time, because now is when we really need you as a visitor. And so that really helped, I think propel the community forward by having all of those things kind of moving in tandem.
Cathy: And we expected as a destination that we would have to do additional transitioning messaging through December and maybe into the new year, and what happened was people started to say in December, I want my Vegas back. I don't want one crazy person who did this awful, terrible thing to really change the Vegas we know and love. And so we said, okay. In January, we started to go back to some regular messaging, I think the other thing that really made it, increased our ability to be able to do it was our media partners donated space to promote the Vegas strong messaging that we had running. There was $3.6 million worth of media that was donated by all the media partners we had worked with over the years, which really allowed us to push some of that messaging, that UGC campaign, and some of that traditional Vegas strong messaging out into the marketplace in a way that we hadn't done before. We had some messaging in times square and we hadn't done that before. Having partners like that really made a difference as well.
Chad: So if you could point at one thing, and I'm sure there are many things, but the biggest thing, if you could point out one thing that actually helped you and the brand in Vegas really through this, what would that be?
Cathy: I think one of the biggest learnings, and the one thing that really helped us be successful was developing that communication system between us and the key stakeholders and the community so that we could share information quickly and we can be sure that it was accurate and that we could make sure that we were a voice for the community in a way that traditionally were their voice to welcome the community here, but we also needed to make sure that we were helping pushing out some messaging as a city of where people could help. And so I think bridging those communication systems was really what helped the community respond in a way that was amazing.
Joel: Well, Kathy, we thank you for your time and sharing, I know a heartfelt story, a tragedy. I'm sure it's not easy for you to talk about that incident. We really appreciate you taking some time out and sort of framing what that day and those few days after that and the months after that really entailed for you in the city of Vegas. Thank you so much.
Cathy: Thank you.
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