How to Manage Your Brand in Times of Crisis

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It’s a Saturday afternoon. Your restaurant had a strong week of sales and you just celebrated your 5th anniversary in business. You decide to take the day off and just relax with your family.

At 6:07 p.m., it’s a busy night at the restaurant and you get a frantic call from your manager. “There’s been an accident at the restaurant. It’s a kitchen fire and it’s bad.”

No restaurant brand is immune to events like this. Will you be ready when a crisis shows up at your door? Or will you let years of hard work and investment go up in smoke?

We’ve heard the stories — E. coli at Chipotle stores, brand spokesperson goes to jail for child porn at Subway, and rogue employees do disgusting things with food at Dominos.  All these events came without warning and cost the operators customers and money, and their brands took a huge negative hit.

In life and in business, bad stuff happens to good people and companies every day. Crisis does not discriminate. Large restaurant chains and single location independents are equally vulnerable. Neither situation or the other is better. Large companies often have a bigger media spotlight shined on them that can cost millions of dollars, while smaller restaurants usually have limited resources to deal with a brand nightmare.

The difference between a crisis killing a business, and the restaurant surviving and bouncing back to be even stronger than before, boils down to three critical areas:

1. How fully prepared you are with a response plan before a crisis
2. How you manage all aspects of your business during the crisis event
3. How you quickly take action to get your brand back after the event

Smart operators are prepared everyday for unfortunate situations and have a plan in place to manage through adversity and quickly bounce back to business.

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Before an Event

Being fully prepared for a crisis means:

Thinking through different crisis scenarios before they happen.
Identify possible crisis events that could happen at your restaurant and how you would deal with them on all levels of impact. This can range from publicity/public opinion to legal liability to limiting business disruption.

Common crisis triggers can include:

  • Crime incidents 
  • Food-related illnesses
  • Alcohol-related situations
  • Mother nature driven events
  • Property maintenance accidents
  • Terrorism acts
  • Security hacking (from credit cards to loyalty programs)

Have a communication and response protocol in place.
Be clear and make sure that all employees know the chain of command, your communication protocol (including dealing with news outlets and social media), and who within the organization can speak on behalf of the restaurant. This can be a simple one-page instruction document that is part of all employee training.

Conduct test crisis drills based on the list above.

This is no different than a fire drill. Make sure that managers and all employees are knowledgeable of emergency exits, safety matters, and what to do when they see something unusual or that could lead to a bad situation. Conducting simple drills can be a game-changer in the event of a crisis.

During an Event

Successfully managing through a crisis event means staying calm, acting compassionately, and practicing responsible and on-brand communications:

  • Be ready to answer the "who, what, where, when, why, and how" questions
  • Do a thorough inventory of all assets at your disposal and assemble a team of response ambassadors
  • Build a narrative to explain the situation and defend your brand
  • Decide how you will communicate. Will you hold a press conference, use social media, purchase ads?
  • Remember to never say, "No Comment," and to respond in a timely manner to all major media contacts
  • Take responsibility to improve the situation. This does not mean admitting guilt; it means making the public and your employees feel confident that you have their interests in mind and are working to find timely solutions.
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After an Event

After a brand crisis, an operator must quickly take steps to get back to business and to put the brand back on solid ground:

Depending on the situation, this can mean:

  • Keeping employees informed on the lessons learned from the negative event and the plan moving forward
  • Undertaking the needed changes to ensure that a similar crisis event or situation won’t happen again
  • Shifting the focus from the crisis, and reframing your story from one misfortune to one that puts a spotlight on what makes your restaurant unique and a great place to patronize and work
  • Following up with influencers that have supported you during the tough times. Thank them and keep your eyes and ears open for added feedback. This can include reengaging with the media, bloggers, community leaders, and customers.
  • Keeping your public profile positive, top of mind, and on-brand. This means not hiding from the event but instead taking pride in your brand essence (purpose, points of difference, personality, and promise) prior to the brand bump.

Throughout history, in all industries, great companies and individuals alike have been handed some crappy cards. Some deserved what they got. For others, it was a case of bad timing or just plain bad luck. Failure, accidents, and crisis in business and life are events in time. In most cases, the brand’s black eyes won’t be permanent as long as the company or person learns from the experience. You can’t change the past, but you can take charge of your future. Stay on course, be resilient, brand on!