It takes patience and understanding to communicate in crisis, and the restaurant community is grappling to survive COVID-19, an unimaginable and still unfolding public health crisis with an unknown ending. Whether you are a multi-unit, multiple concept restaurant company, franchisee or an independent restaurant, and whether you’re still operational, adapting to a carryout and delivery model, or have been forced to close, here are some tips to consider when communicating during this uncertain and unprecedented time.
Remember your internal team—In the haste of wanting to reach customers or to stem the tide of lost sales and revenue, companies in crisis often forget about their internal audiences. Assure your employees understand what is being done to protect them, whether their jobs are secure or what support you will give during a furlough, and what your business plans are and how you’ll get back to business when the crisis ends. Explain what being an “essential worker” means and how you’ll keep them safe.
Be honest about the business—Now’s the time for transparency, with your internal team and with external audiences. COVID-19 is happening to everyone. There is no shame in the struggle, but you should be truthful and communicate with integrity. This is especially true when talking about temporary layoffs. Do what you can, but don’t create false hope for your team.
Speak from values—Remember to focus on how your company values are guiding your COVID-19 response, including steps being taken to protect your team and the public. Show that you are putting public health and safety, and the well-being of your employees, first. Reminding people that you care about them remains a core responsibility for restaurateurs.
Under-promise and over-deliver—We’re in this for a while. Don’t promise to be open in a week, or two weeks. Other government and public health orders may come. Don’t over-commit too early to hire your team back or be back in business for guests. This applies to your day to day, too. If you’ve got a limited menu, less than full staff, or delayed delivery times—tell the truth—and don’t make promises you can’t keep. But be innovative and forward-thinking as you look for ways to operate in this temporary “new normal.”
Don’t act like a public health expert—Share with your team and guests the information from respected, credible third-party public health experts (CDC and local departments of health, for example) in shaping your communications—but don’t speak for them and don’t speculate. Let the healthcare professionals do their jobs. But if you’re open, keep communicating about what you’re doing to prevent the spread of the virus, to protect your team and to disinfect your spaces.
Make the hard choices—Let your team know you’ll send them home if they are ill—and then do it. You don’t want your restaurant accused in the media of spreading the virus or making other employees or guests sick. Follow the rules issued by the state about temperature monitoring of employees—and don’t let those with a temperature come to work.
Keep it simple—Avoid long, drawn out letters and posts. There is an oversupply of COVID-19 information out there, and consumers are weary of the constant emails and rhetoric. Short, measured bursts of more frequent information are far more effective and will reduce consumer fatigue.
It’s not just about YOUR money—Keep your focus where it should be—on your team. Even as you’re hurting, losing sales or even shutting down, remember there are real people involved in this crisis and be sensitive and supportive of their concerns. Be positive, but realistic.
Consider your social media posts—Don’t pretend this isn’t serious. Avoid posting silly memes or suggesting this is less than an actual public health crisis. Don’t second-guess or criticize government orders or public health experts on digital channels. Any public statements or posts should be in an appropriate tone. A time of crisis is not the time for fun and games on social media. If you’ve got posts pre-scheduled, open it up and see if changes need to be made.
Build a cross-functional team—If you are a larger employer, make sure your communications align with operations, logistics, finance, human resources and legal. This is about more than just PR, and good advice from subject-matter experts is critical to positioning your restaurant for what lies ahead.
Above all, engage with restaurant industry experts and read relevant news coverage about industry resources and federal relief opportunities. They will have the most up to date information and guidance, and some may provide innovative solutions and ideas to help your business remain viable. Now is the time for cooperation and collaboration among all in our restaurant community.
Hinda Mitchell is the founder and president of Inspire PR Group, a national strategic communications firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. She is a frequent crisis management and response advisor to the hospitality industry. Reach Hinda at 614.537.8926 or Hinda@InspirePRGroup.com.