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From misdiagnosing autism to shaming a mother:  a PR crisis playbook by Plantation Bay

From misdiagnosing autism to shaming a mother:  a PR crisis playbook by Plantation Bay


Two days ago, a mother left a review on Plantation Bay Resort and Spa in Mactan, Cebu on TripAdvisor. In it, she recounts how she and her son diagnosed with autism were forced to vacate the swimming area after lifeguards reprimanded the son’s joyous squeal as he approached the water.

“Every time Fin jumps in the water he’d be so happy that he’d laugh and squeal again. I tried hushing him and at one point tried to cover his mouth,” Mai Pages narrates. “But then I realized this is so wrong. This isn’t right at all!”

Pages said this reaction isn’t new. “When normal people who are ignorant of (those) with special needs give us that stare of ‘please control your child.’”

She left Plantation Bay a one-star review, saying “We need a friendly and empathetic environment for kids and families with special needs.”


Gaslighted with a Google search

More appalling, however, than the discrimination Pages and her son experienced in what was supposed to be a vacation, was Plantation Bay’s response to the incident. 

In a now-deleted part of his statement, resort resident shareholder Manny Gonzalez through Plantation Bay’s general manager, tried to undermine the child’s condition and gaslight his mother based on a Google search on autism.

“For your information, uncontrolled shouting is not a symptom of autism. On the contrary, autistic children tend to be silent, non-verbal, and overwhelmed and withdrawn when faced with strangers… Google ‘Autism’ and verify this for yourself,” Gonzalez said.

His statement added: “Therefore this parent is most likely deliberately lying, or has been given an incorrect diagnosis of autism, when what the child more likely has is a lack of discipline due to simple parental neglect.”


So what was the policy really about? Anything but inclusion

The statement has since been updated to omit this part. But Gonzalez and Plantation Bay stand by its policy and went to great lengths to justify it with several reasons, among them, safety. Gonzalez claimed the resort has the best safety record resulting in zero drownings. He also cited other people’s need for peace and quiet and insinuated that the squealing child can spread COVID-19.

Gonzalez’s views of autism are obviously archaic, arrogant and ignorant. He had dismissed a discriminatory experience with a Google search and undermined a mother’s character and intention for reporting the incident. Such response speaks volume of the lack of understanding on autism prevalent everywhere—yes, even in a “luxury” resort.

But for a mother who lived through the traumatic experience, it takes an inhumane level of arrogance for a man to recount his version of the incident on a public website and lard it with shame and guilt.


A PR playbook

Then again this is a man who is no stranger to gaslighting claims against Plantation Bay. A year ago, Gonzalez slandered a person who cried food poisoning on the resort’s buffet restaurant, basically calling them opportunistic “punks” who deserved what they got. Instead of taking responsibility and investigating the incident, he went on to list probable external factors—including the diners’ hygiene—that may have caused the  food poisoning.

Sounds familiar? Blaming the victim for something they had suffered and telling them they could have prevented it, claiming that the resort has long upheld this and that standard, and that guests should have read and abided by its policies: yup, that’s exactly how Gonzalez gaslighted Mrs. Pages.

Nowhere in both statements—the other dating almost a year ago—was Plantation Bay made accountable.


An attempt at an apology but no accountability

Shortly after editing his initial reply on TripAdvisor, Gonzalez released another statement “apologizing” for his crass comments on autism. Or at least that’s what he intended it to be. While the arrogant position had been deleted in the updated statement, he said he still stands by the resort’s unreasonable policy of not screaming within resort premises.

That something like this could happen in 2020, 40 years after autism was recognized as a legitimate medical condition, is beyond belief. For it to happen in what one would perceive as a civilized setup like a luxury resort is shocking, but not really beyond the realm of the “exclusive resort” claim that some places aspire for.  But for a supposedly educated man to have the gall to generalize a medical condition and weaponize a Google search against a mother and child with special needs—OK boomer.


A need for a more inclusive environment for people with autism

“Apology is a significant first step. Sadly, the company has a long way to go,” said the Autism Society of the Philippines on a Facebook post reacting to the Plantation Bay incident. 

Apology is a significant first step. Sadly, the company has a long way to go.

Plantation Bay Resort & Spa stands firm…

Posted by Autism Society Philippines on Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The organization, too, found the resort’s stubborn belief that there is “NO ROOM for reasonable accommodation for the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities” ridiculous and inhumane.

“We hope the company acknowledges the need for rights-based disability sensitivity training and a review of its policies and processes against the Magna Carta of Persons with Disabilities (RA 7277),” the group added.

Mental health advocate Dr. Gia Sison echoed this need in a tweet. “Plantation Bay needs a major education caravan on mental health and children with special needs.” 

Reacting to Gonzalez’s comment equating Pages’ reaction to “parental pride,” Sison said: “You are beyond disappointment! And please do not include parenthood here, it has nothing to do with it.”

But a more fitting first step, we think, is for Plantation Bay to revisit its “policy” against reviews and its reaction towards adverse feedback. For starters, on its website, the resort vilifies online reviews, both from social media and platforms like TripAdvisor.

“Most of these sponsored reviews are on user-generated sites, and the most well-known of these is TripAdvisor, which accepts reviews from anyone with an e-mail,” a Plantation Bay statement read. “It makes no effort to verify if the reviews are by real paying guests, or if they are honest and fair. In addition, TripAdvisor has spawned a new class of hotel guests, bent on bullying hotels with the spoken or unspoken threat of posting an ugly review.” It sounds as if Gonzalez (or his ghostwriter) himself wrote this.

It would do the resort well to acknowledge, at the very least, that negative comments exist and that there’s always room for improvement.



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Writer: CHRISTIAN SAN JOSE © 2020. Hinge Inquirer Publications, Inc.


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