Dominican Republic Turns to “Crisis Specialists” to Quiet a Reputational Storm

What Can the Island Do to Regain the Trust of Tourists?     

6/18/19 – – Tourists from around the world flock to the Dominican Republic for its year-round sunshine and blue sky. But for the Caribbean destination’s carefully nurtured brand, June has been a very stormy month.

If you’ve been following the news, you’ve been seeing troubling reports of unexplained U.S. tourist illnesses and deaths, as well as a near-fatal hit in a Santo Domingo bar on retired Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz. The beloved slugger, affectionately known as “Big Papi,” is a native of the Dominican Republic. The bad publicity keeps snowballing, with an account coming out today of “crippling vomiting and diarrhea” among more than 50 members of a Jimmy Buffet fan club visiting from Oklahoma. Yuck!

Tourism accounts for 22% of the Dominican Republic’s economy, and 47% of all tourists to the island (about 2.7 million annually) are Americans. The severity of the island’s crisis was summed up well by a local cab driver quoted in the June 12 Washington Post: “If tourism falls, my country falls.”

Given the crucial importance of tourism, you’d think that the folks in charge of the destination’s reputation would be prepared to respond effectively to inevitable negative events. That does not seem to be the case. Andre Van Der Horst, tourism advisor to the Dominican Republic government, expressed surprise at the raging storm to the Washington Post: “With social media today, we are exposed and require an immediate response to the current public relations dynamic, a new reality worldwide.”

Hopefully, social media’s explosive, immediate reach is not a “new reality” for you or your company.  One of the seven elements measured by the Crisis Preparedness Quotient to predict an organization’s readiness to handle special situations like the one facing the Dominican Republic is “Digital Diligence.” The time to establish and nurture your presence and participation on digital platforms is not the day after a damaging story is published. Van Der Horst expressed his frustration to the Post: “We are not used to this type of viral communicational outburst and are working with crisis management specialists to establish reaction protocols.”

After the “crisis management specialists” bring the “reaction protocols” up to speed, what should be their next priority? There’s good news in the Post story. The F.B.I. has been brought onboard to assist with toxicology reports on the victims. Although they may take up to 30 days to complete, trusted reports have the potential to resolve the most damaging element of this crisis: uncertainty. It’s impossible to regain control during a crisis when you can’t identify the cause of the problems – in this case tourist illnesses and deaths.

In Chapter 4 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient   Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“How Crises Typically Play Out”), we discuss the fact that, “The severity and duration of an audience’s reaction to a crisis are determined primarily by self-interest.” The people most concerned about the troubles in the Dominican Republic are those thinking about visiting the island. If they believe the bad things happening are a danger to themselves, they will scratch the island’s beautiful resorts off their list of future vacation destinations. Life’s too short and the options in the Caribbean too plentiful to take a risk. So, if the highly respected F.B.I. can definitively determine what’s happening, the problems can be addressed and visitors can be confident they will be safe. Until there are answers, all bets are off. People’s decisions are driven by enlightened self-interest.

I don’t mean to dismiss the negative impact of the attempted murder of David Ortiz. That episode certainly contributes to the perception building of the Dominican Republic as a dangerous, lawless place. But most people rationalize (self-interest kicking in again) that they are not famous and would never be the target of a hit man. Early conjecture reported in the Daily Mail is that Big Papi was involved with a drug lord’s girlfriend, buying her a Lexus the day before he was shot. That questionable decision would get you into trouble anywhere in the world!

So, let’s wish the people of the Dominican Republic the best of luck in quickly finding answers and regaining the trust of tourists worldwide. If they are definitive and honest about what they discover, the island’s skies will be blue again.

UPDATE 6/20/19 – – Law enforcement authorities in the Dominican Republic believe David Ortiz was not the intended target of the shooting earlier this month in Santo Domingo.

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