WORD OF MOUTH CRISIS
Three days ago, a blog about eating vegan in Charlotte, NC (VegCharlotteNC.com) published a story that has gone viral. The story tells of of an unpleasant experience at a Christmas party at the Dandelion Market restaurant whereby the author claims that she and her fiancé were aggressively thrown out by restaurant security because of religion and race prejudice. This is a huge allegation and a bombshell against any business. My interest in the story is not about who did right or wrong, but rather from a marketing and public relations aspect. How does the restaurant respond?
This is a classic case of how things have changed in the last ten years. Word of mouth (the most powerful form of marketing) never had a vehicle to travel. If you had a bad experience, you’d tell ten of your friends. If you had a good experience than you may tell three. In today’s connected world, a positive Facebook review may reach 300 within your social network – a negative review may reach 10,000! In the case of this story, the blog post had been viewed by over 14,000 people on Saturday, February 22nd alone! These numbers will continue to spread en masse with a good chance of the press picking it up on Monday.
This shift is both exciting and scary for many businesses. Businesses that deliver a great experience don’t need to have a huge advertising budget in order to penetrate the ‘noise’ of the marketplace. However, companies that fail to deliver great service will be exposed. In the case of the Dandelion Market (whether right or wrong in their reasoning for removing the patrons) I am sure their procedures with security will be revised. How people are removed and spoken to will need to be done under strict protocols because of the possible online fallout.
Public Relations – Rules of Engagement
When dealing with a media crisis there are four keys that businesses must adhere to. They are:
1. Be Timely – Stay Ahead of the Story
2. Know Your Story
3. Be Clear and Decisive
4. Be Honest
I have no doubt that the management and ownership of the Dandelion Market are reeling from the current attention they’re receiving. Aside from being busy with normal operations, energy must be directed towards damage control. Here, we measure how they’ve done based on the guidelines above.
1. TIME: Stay Ahead of the Story – When dealing with negative press, staying ahead of the story is crucial. No response gives the impression of guilt and allows speculation to become rampant. The blog post was published on February 20th. The restaurant did not issue a response until midday on February 23rd – three days after the blog post was issued. During those three days, the story has grown from a snowball rolling downhill into a monster avalanche forcing the ownership of Dandelion Market to climb out battered and bruised. Though only one side of the story has been told, readers have become judge and jury posting their views for the world to see. The story owns the Dandelion Market instead of the restaurant owning the story because of slow response time.
TIP: Every business should utilize Google Alerts in order to have a finger on the pulse of what is shared online.
2. KNOW YOUR STORY - Be sure to know every fact of the story. There are a lot of details in the accusation made by the blog’s author which includes evidence of assault based on pictures of bruising. I have no doubt that the management of Dandelion Market have the facts from the incident as a police report was filed back in December. A good review of all of the facts should be looked at before a response is issued publicly.
3. BE CLEAR AND DECISIVE – Dandelion Market issued a response via their Facebook account sharing there side of the story (see below). Do you think this message clear and decisive?
4. BE HONEST - I cannot say whether the DM is being honest or dishonest. I wasn’t there and pass no judgement. However, if something is being omitted from the facts, or if video is released proving otherwise, the damage will be far worse and will cast a negativity on the restaurant that will be difficult to overcome.
Response from Dandelion Market
“It is not the policy of Dandelion Market to respond to baseless accusations. Unfortunately, because of rather libelous accusations of certain individuals we feel it necessary to reach out to our friends in the community. We take the responsibility of serving alcoholic beverages very seriously and occasionally we have to make decisions in order to protect our business and livelihood, decisions that upset some of our customers. Unfortunately, the events that transpired on the evening of December 6th forced us to make decisions that certain individuals did not like.
Two individuals were observed and identified as extremely inebriated. After being informed that it was our policy that all patrons were to be awake and alert, one of the individuals was found asleep at a table that had been vomited on. At this point, the security staff asked the patrons to leave the premises. The two individuals protested their eviction but left together of their own will. Once outside the premises the individuals continued to protest and the female individual erratically forced her way back in only to be escorted out once more. Once outside the building the manager on duty explained that they were welcomed back at another time but they would not be allowed in again on that evening. The incident was concluded by several members of staff witnessing the intoxicated female stumbling and being held up by her friends while waiting on a taxi.
Days after the incident, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police visited us in regards to that evening. We shared the events as documented in our written incident reports which are recorded following any disturbance that requires the attention of our security staff. After looking into the matter, the police determined that there was no course of action to be taken. We have continued to be honest and forthcoming with the details of the incident. We refuse to get into an argument with individuals because they mistook our motives and actions.
The action taken by the staff and management were in no way motivated by race, gender or religious beliefs. Action was taken in an effort to ensure the safety of patrons and staff of Dandelion Market.
As afore mentioned, it is not our policy to respond to defamatory accusations. However, when we are being accused of questionable morals we feel it necessary to offer a statement to our friends in the community. At Dandelion Market we pride ourselves on being a productive part of our community. We serve and employ members of our community with a spirit of inclusion and respect. We are here to serve the whole community, and will continue to do so, proudly.”
The response is very lengthy and gives the restaurant’s account of the story which opens Pandora’s Box to more scrutiny. When writing a response, an effort must be made at delivering key messages that is focused in order to slow the negativity. This response is fueled with emotion, defensiveness and does not address all accusations succinctly.
Grading the Response
The response should have been more strategic as it has only added fuel to the fire. Here’s why:
a). Too Much Detail – It is good to be transparent, but it can be a detriment when too much information is provided. All of these additional facts have only fueled more questions by the court of public opinion. The response on Facebook has fueled this story further. (4 Hours after the response, there have been 131 comments, 161 likes, and 54 shares). The majority of the responses are negative. The story has become a he-said versus she-said battle. It would have been better to address the actual allegations more head-on and succinctly.
b). Tone - The tone feels emotional and defensive and it shouldn’t. I appreciate the company taking a hard stance on the allegations, but referring to the blogger repeatedly as “two individuals” doesn’t set the right tone and feels defensive.
c) Facts – While denying all allegations and sharing their side of the story, a critical piece of the story is lacking – the issue of the bruises. This should have been addressed in the response as this issue is fueling the outrage – even if DM is at fault. For example, “We are investigating the allegations of the bruising…”
d). Messaging- The most concerning issue with the blog is that of racism and assault. This is not addressed until the fourth paragraph. This should have been in the first paragraph getting to the point. Deleting the emotional details would have been better than rehashing and should have had a beginning, middle and end.
From a strategic standpoint, the ownership and management of Dandelion Market need some clarity. Undoubtedly, they are feeling overwhelmed by the storm and it’s not quite over. If the media pick up the story on Monday, then the phones of DM will begin to ring. A management meeting devoid of emotion should be put together to discuss strategy. Of course, hiring a PR firm will help with clarity as a 10,000 foot view of the situation will help as undoubtedly those involved will experience subjectivity in a time when great objectivity is needed. My recommendation is to have a press release created that lacks in defensive tone, denies any issue of prejudice and sticks to the absolute facts provided they are honest. This will help DM stay on top of the story should the media begin to spread the story.
The other issue is addressing the Facebook and Yelp reviews that are starting to pour in. These will be lasting and will be read by people who have never heard of this story months or even years from now. Without re-hashing all of the events, a response should be published.
This storm will pass, but how it is handled will determine how long it will stay. There are two sides of every story and I choose not to judge. The sad reality (as evidenced by YouTube comments everyday) is that the court of public opinion is harsh especially when afforded the anonymity of being behind a computer screen. Better education of how to prepare when these crises arise will become more and more commonplace as we move further into the digital age.
» by James on February 23, 2014