By Ellen Weaver Hartman, APR, Fellow PRSA
When someone refuses to take the stand in court to testify in their own defense â€“ even though itâ€™s our Constitutional right â€“ we never quite trust the personâ€™s innocence, do we? If they were innocent, we say, they would take the stand and defend themselves.
The same is true when you have an â€œincidentâ€ in your restaurant or you experience a negative review. It is your right not to say anything, but it certainly isnâ€™t in your best interests. I once heard a police officer-turned-restaurant-crisis-and-media relations guru tell a group of regional burger chain franchisees that the only comment to the media should be â€œno comment.â€
That is absolutely true if you want everyone talking about your restaurant â€“ with the rumors and innuendoes growing with each conversation â€“ while you idly stand by and do nothing.
If you or your companyâ€™s representative doesnâ€™t get your side of the story out, then you are conceding to the disgruntled guests, competitors, journalist or nonpartisan bystander who heard the negative story and just wants to pass it on for gossipâ€™s sake.Â Ever heard of a story â€œgoing viral?â€
â€œNo commentâ€ first of all makes you look guilty â€” as if you are hiding something, like the defendant who wonâ€™t face the jury and tell his or her side of the story.
Now, any good lawyer would tell his or her client to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth â€” and nothing else. That means knowing what you are going to say ahead of time, practicing it and knowing when to stop talking.
At a recent Georgia Restaurant Association Media Training session that Anne Reeves Reich and I conducted, most of the 30 attendees had one goal in mind: learning how to respond when something bad happens at the restaurant, especially if the media is reporting on the story.
The four most dreaded scenarios are a bad review, low food safety score, a customer reporting a foreign object in the food, and the worst: someone gets sick or dies after eating your food.
So, what should your actions be and what should you say to your staff, guests and the media?
1. Be prepared in advance. We have said this before but it is the best advice. Sit down with your staff (and possibly your lawyer and PR counsel) and write down all of the problems you possibly could have at your restaurant. Chart out each scenario. Go through all the questions that could come up and draft a statement and list of actions to take for each. (See the chart on page xx for examples.)
2. Get media trained. Politicians know the value of the message and the value of being prepared with a factual and empathetic answer to his/her most dreaded questions.
3. Be honest with yourself. If itâ€™s a bad review or a customer complaint, take a deep breath and really try to understand if there is validity to their remarks. Maybe your dÃ©cor is a bit outdated or maybe your staff needs a refresher course on the wine menu.
4. Turn a negative into a positive. Again, it is up to you to respond to the situation, give your side and then show some positive action.
Remember, it is better to be prepared for bad news than to try to respond during an actual crisis. But regardless of the situation, the keys to media training and your response involve the following:
Keys to media training
1. Who is your target audience and what do you want them to know and act on? Reacting to a television reporter is different than dealing with a food inspector. Understanding this will help you craft your message as well as determine the way you deliver it.
2. Your messages should help you achieve your objectives. Calling a food critic a meathead with no taste buds is probably not the best way to get him to come back in a few months and review the restaurant again. But not responding to the critic wonâ€™t make that happen, either. The key is to know what you want. The critic isnâ€™t going to retract his story, but he very well may come back and write a positive story â€“ especially if he believes that his comments helped you â€œsee the light.â€
3. Know your rights. You donâ€™t have to speak with reporters when you are called or confronted with TV cameras in your face. You definitely should speak with them in time for them to meet their deadline. If you arenâ€™t prepared to talk, promise to call them right back, giving you time to collect yourself and your thoughts. Ask them what type of questions they have so you can be prepared. Get prepared. And then call them right back.
4. Deliver your message regardless of the question asked. If someone had a bad reaction to a meal, acknowledge it, but in the same sentence you might also say that your vendors provide top-quality produce and that you serve thousands of happy diners each year. Henry Kissinger often opened press conferences with â€œWhat questions do you have for my answers?â€
5. Remember that media training can also help you promote your restaurant. Wouldnâ€™t it be a shame to miss a photo op or a good story because you werenâ€™t prepared to talk to the media and therefore didnâ€™t respond? There are plenty of opportunities for you to create awareness, pre-sell products, build credibility for your restaurant as a responsible community citizen, and differentiate yourself from your competition. But if you donâ€™t know how to say it in 30 seconds, it wonâ€™t get reported.
Remember the Tylenol crisis of a few years ago in which the CEO of the company went on camera and truthfully told the companyâ€™s side of the story and explained what they were going to do about it? Remember how great everyone felt about Tylenol after that? Yes. Do you remember what the problem was in the first place? Probably not. Many believe the CEOâ€™s candor saved the company.
No comment is never the right answer. But the right answer should be intelligently crafted and honestly delivered, so that a negative can be turned into a positive. But itâ€™s up to you to plan ahead for the day that we all hope wonâ€™t happen â€” but could.
Ellen Weaver Hartman is President and CEO of Hartman Public Relations based in Atlanta. Hartman has more than 30 years of experience in building strategic communications campaigns for some of the worldâ€™s most well-known brands, including Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Popeyes, Avon products, Arbyâ€™s, Seattleâ€™s Best Coffee and Chiliâ€™s. In addition to consumer and business-to-business communications, she has expertise in corporate communications, social responsibility, media relations and crisis management. To contact Hartman, e-mail moc.r1548288324pnamt1548288324rah@n1548288324elle1548288324.