Arnie WeissmannYou might be worried that the economy, competition from the Internet, natural disasters and direct bookings represent the biggest threats to your business. But it turns out that aspects of human neuroscience can undo your company faster and more surely than those threats.

Last week at the Travel Weekly Mexico Leadership Forum in Mexico City, attendees heard from Nicholas Ludlum, a vice president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide who specializes in crisis management.

When most of us think of public relations nightmares, we think of BP's oil spill, Toyota's sudden acceleration issues or Firestone's tire blowouts.

But the example Ludlum cited first was from the travel industry: In July, a storm capsized a charter fishing boat in Baja California's Sea of Cortes. One person was killed; seven were missing.

Mexico's brand as a tourist destination was already under intense scrutiny due to violence associated with drug cartels, so the government's reaction was critically important. Ludlum said Mexican officials responded appropriately to media questions, made conscientious efforts to find the missing and reached out compassionately to the victims' families.

But as the search for the missing continued without result, the risk to Mexico's reputation began to change. The families of the missing launched a social media campaign to pressure the government to expand the search beyond what would normally be expected in such situations, even though there were technical limitations related to the depth of the sea.

The situation changed course only after the Mexican government asked the U.S. for help overcoming technical difficulties. The U.S. turned down that request, and the families' attention turned to the U.S.

Ludlum told the story not to demonstrate how to deflect a crisis but rather to show how the development of a crisis can often be traced to how the human brain works.

As humans, we're powered by about 40 watts of electricity. A 40-watt bulb is pretty dim, so it doesn't seem like enough energy to power us in all our activity.

But it works because the brain has become extraordinarily efficient, and one technique it has developed is to identify familiar patterns in new situations so it can quickly size up what's going on.

It's been famously said that there are really only seven stories in literature, because all tales follow a small number of basic plot patterns. The brain, in fact, rewards us for linking new observations to established patterns by releasing a bit of dopamine, which makes us feel good. The whole process is labeled confirmation bias.

Conversely, we hate it when our preconceived notions are challenged, and this makes crisis management difficult, because in any given dramatic situation, humans want to quickly size up who is the villain and who is a victim.

In Baja, it looked as if the villain would be Mexico. But despite confirmation bias, steps can be taken to transform a company from presumed villain to responsible leader.

The first is to acknowledge neuroscience and address the perceived problem as well as the real problem. Since confirmation bias is emotion-based, simply laying out a rational, technical defense isn't enough. People do need to know that you have a plan to address the causes of crises, but you also need to address the underlying emotional aspects. Otherwise, no matter how rational you are, you're cast as the villain.

One way to fight confirmation bias, Ludlum said, is to put forward something that is completely discordant with preconceived patterns, thus forcing people to re-evaluate their patterns.

The majority of Mexican tourist destinations, for example, aren't located near the areas most affected by drug cartel violence. A bias has nonetheless arisen among some travelers that all of Mexico is unsafe.

Facts alone cannot change that impression, so the Mexico Tourism Board will launch an additional campaign featuring voices other than its own, capturing American tourists talking naturally and spontaneously about what a great time they had in Mexico.

The tactic was suggested by travel agency leaders and tour operators in Cancun during a special Mexico Tourism Summit earlier this year.

As attendees at the summit could see, Cancun offers great value in a peaceful setting, but that reality alone is no match for patterns of bias confirmation.

Unfortunately, facts are not enough. The reality of neuroscience has to be taken into account as well.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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