Hall of Shame: Waldorf-Astoria's Passive Use of Passive Voice

Indirect language and passive voice can be great tools for diplomacy, but as New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel recently demonstrated, they can also be used to avoid the appearance of taking responsibility.

The Waldorf was clearly in a bind when a large contingent of the Saudi royal family arrived and needed a whole lot of hotel rooms, at a time when the hotel was booked for the Thanksgiving holiday. The hotel would not confirm what happened or explain its decision, but the apparent result was that more than 100 other guests with confirmed reservations discovered they had been bumped. In addition to the decision itself, there is the significant customer service question of why the hotel didn’t inform all those it had to bump before they arrived. Even though the hotel made other arrangements for these guests, when you book a room at the world-famous Waldorf, you want to stay at the world-famous Waldorf.

However, what really caught our attention was the language used by Hilton Hotels, the Waldorf’s owner, to explain the situation. Hilton’s statement included the following:

“On those occasions when a guest relocation occurs, it is always our intention and goal to ensure that the affected individual is totally satisfied.”

When a guest relocation occurs. We’ll even concede the “guest relocation” euphemism. It’s the word occurs that is the real gem here, as though some mysterious force relocated 100 people who had confirmed reservations. These relocation didn’t passively “occur.” Waldorf actively relocated 100 customers.

Yes, the hotel was clearly in a jam, but just as clearly it made the decision to accommodate one group of customers at the inconvenience of another group. We’re not saying the hotel should have just come right out and explained exactly what it did, but it could have shown more respect for the bumped customers by taking responsibility for the decision. Here’s one possibility:

“When circumstances force us to relocate guests, it is always . . . “

This keeps the business decision behind the scenes but puts the hotel in the role of the active agent responsible for the decision. This seems like a reasonable middle ground between offering a full explanation and pretending that a Thanksgiving miracle happened.

What do you think of Hilton’s statement? What would you advise your students to say if they were in the role of Hilton’s PR manager?