Ask any quick-serve operator who’s been through a crisis. He will be able to tell you the exact date, time, and day of the week the fate of his concept came under attack. Whether it’s a food scare, a rodent infestation, a food-borne illness, or a product recall that threatens a brand’s reputation, its every detail—along with a feeling of peril—is emblazoned into his memory.
What would you do if your company came under fire? In this day and age, the unpredictability of crises is no longer an excuse for responding to them poorly. Preparation can be the deciding factor in whether your brand survives the onslaught of customer concerns and media coverage that will inevitably follow.
It’s 2010. Do you know where your crisis-management plan is?
Assess the Situation
Last April, when news of the swine flu started to consume the media, Richard Averitte, marketing director of Smithfield’s Chicken ’N Bar-B-Q, a 33-unit concept in North Carolina, realized it could present a problem for the concept. He could already imagine the questions from customers: Is it safe to eat at your restaurants? Where does Smithfield’s get its pork from?
And then he imagined customers who wouldn’t even ask those questions, who would simply avoid Smithfield’s completely to be on the safe side.
“I wanted to answer those questions,” Averitte says. “So I did the research.”
Often, the first step in crisis management is the same one Averitte took: gathering as much information as possible.
“It’s reconnaissance,” says Eric Dezenhall, author of the book Damage Control. “It’s, What exactly on a factual level is the problem that we have? Until you know that, there’s not a lot else you can do.”
Averitte visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site to learn as much as he could about the swine flu. Luckily, he found the information he needed quickly—and it was good news.
“One of the questions on the swine flu Q&A page that I read said you cannot get swine flu from eating pork,” Averitte says. He also learned that the infected pigs were thought to have come from Mexico and California. Armed with the information necessary to settle customers’ fears, Averitte decided to take action that day (a Saturday) by writing a blog post that would start a conversation with customers on the subject. The post first addressed the foremost question on customers’ minds by reassuring them that Smithfield’s pork came exclusively from North Carolina farms. It went on to explain that you can’t become infected with H1N1 by eating pork and gave a link to the CDC Web site to prove it.
Averitte thinks the order of the message was crucial in addressing customer’s concerns and preventing a potential sales dip.
“You often have to put on your customer shoes,” he says.
At the time, the public was concerned more with whether Smithfield’s was using infected pigs to make its barbecue than with learning enough about the technicalities of swine flu to realize that they couldn’t catch it from eating barbecue.
“You have to think, ‘What would they think?’” Averitte says.
When a crisis hits, each level of a brand takes on a distinct responsibility, regardless of whether the problem is local or national.
“All crises are both,” disaster control expert Dezenhall says. “In actuality they’re local, but they become national by virtue of the media bloodstream.”
Take Domino’s, for example. Last April, two employees in a Conover, North Carolina, store decided to make a series of repulsive videos, which they posted on YouTube.
“Our first step was trying to figure out who they were and where they were,” says Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications for Domino’s. He grabbed still images of the employees from the videos and sent them out to the company’s 5,000 U.S. stores as soon as possible.
Immediately, the corporate, regional, and store managers at Domino’s took on different roles. The manager of the Conover store where the incident occurred fired the responsible employees then closed his store so all of the food could be thrown away and the entire store could be sanitized.
Other store managers, under the direction of corporate, were encouraged to “be pissed” when reassuring concerned customers that the incident was an isolated event that happened in one store.
At the regional level, managers were directed to respond similarly to customer concerns and to call McIntyre for guidance with media inquiries.
All the while, corporate continued to make strategic decisions—such as when and how to communicate about the issue.