Crisis Management Gone Wrong: How to Avoid a PR Nightmare in the Retail & Restaurant Industries

By: Andrea Trapani

The thought of crisis planning may seem overwhelming, but so will the thought of a rapidly unfolding media meltdown if you don’t have a crisis management plan and a strong crisis communications strategy in place.

Every organization is vulnerable to crises, and you certainly don’t want to be caught off guard should unfavorable news about your brand take an unexpected turn for the worse.

In the case of the retail and restaurant industries, these organizations are particularly susceptible to a PR disaster without a well-thought-out, strategic crisis communications plan, due to the high traffic, consumer-facing nature of these brands.

This was the case for Max & Erma’s, which—without warning—recently revealed it was closing 13 restaurants in three states, leaving hundreds of employees baffled by the abrupt and unexpected nature of the announcement.

This certainly isn’t the first time a restaurant brand had to announce store closings. However, what started out as a manageable message quickly spiraled out of control.

Upset, confused and without answers, employees took to social media and other public forums to express their frustrations and concerns with the situation. The result left executives at Max & Erma’s doing damage control as they tried to repair the brand’s tarnished reputation.

The debacle that has ensued from Max & Erma’s recent dilemma stirred up some conversation in our office. We’ve developed a deep understanding of working with retail and restaurant brands that have had to close locations for a variety of reasons.

It’s a situation that is very unique—one that requires a specialized understanding of not only the communication pitfalls and opportunities, but also the complex operational nuances that are inherent in the retail and restaurant sectors.

As experts in crisis management, with specific experience in this arena, we’ve helped clients navigate delicate conversations with key stakeholders and completely reshape the narrative surrounding serious events, including the closing of brick and mortar locations.

Although each crisis communications situation calls for its own carefully calibrated strategy, here are steps you can take now to prevent a crisis, or location closure, from spiraling out of control in the future:

  1. Start preparing now. While you cannot prevent a crisis situation from occurring, you can (and should) have a crisis communications plan in place to ensure your team is adequately prepared should one arise. In the case of retail and restaurant closures, these decisions are made well in advance of when the public announcement is made. As such, your communications planning should be carefully calibrated right along with your internal business strategy and operational process. As the saying goes, the best offense is a strong defense.
  2. Establish a crisis management task force. The first step toward implementing a crisis communications plan is the creation of a crisis management task force. The task force should be comprised of company executives and senior leadership who will serve as spokespeople for the brand. Your crisis communications team should also include members of your public relations department and personnel who can help you monitor for media mentions and social conversations. You may also want to seek outside counsel from a public relations agency that has experience in crisis management, as they will be able to provide an additional layer of strategy and support. Having all key stakeholders at the planning table is critical to ensure all aspects are covered and each task force member understands his/her role in the communications strategy.
  3. Develop an external and internal communications strategy. It’s all too common for companies to focus solely on the external media relations component of their crisis communications strategy, without giving much consideration as to how they will communicate with internal stakeholders, such as employees and investors. The last thing you want to do is neglect your internal stakeholders, as it will only lead to negative outcomes—like a segment with disgruntled employees on the 6 p.m. news.
  4. Equip your front lines. When you’re dealing with a crisis situation, every level in your organization could be a media resource. Not only should executives be equipped with prepared statements and talking points, but regional managers, receptionists and frontline employees should also be educated about the crisis response protocol. This way, they will be able to handle media inquiries and/or disseminate information to direct reports in an appropriate manner. In this case, Max & Erma’s executives were included in media stories due to the release of a prepared media statement—but this happened well after the news had already broke, leading to a noticeable gap in communication from the brand. It’s advisable that necessary external communications tools are prepped and lead the news cycle—not follow it.
  5. Form a social media monitoring and response plan. In an age where social media has become a sounding board for people to express their discontent, and a place for hungry reporters to identify breaking stories, it’s critical to have a social media monitoring and response plan in place. News is now traveling faster than ever, and it’s important for brands to be aware of which conversations are unfolding so they can modify their strategy as needed and step in to comment when necessary.

While crisis situations can be challenging to manage, the right level of planning and preparation will minimize any potential negative impact to your brand and enable you to shape the ensuing narrative in the best interest of your company and the stakeholders you serve.