When Things Go Wrong: Averting a PR Disaster!

That things go wrong is one of life’s inescapable facts.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what your business is you will be faced with challenges that will require some quick thinking, some action and possibly a bit of grovelling where appropriate.  That’s fine though, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t make mistakes.  It’s all about how you respond, here’s something that happened at Baltzersen’s recently………..

The Potential PR Disaster

Last week we had an incident in the cafe that had the potential to develop into a full blown PR disaster.

It involved a lady who said that she had been invited to breastfeed her baby in our toilets rather than in the main area of the cafe.

I didn’t hear about the incident at the time, as I was working upstairs in the office, so I learned about it later that afternoon when I received two phone calls.  One phone call from a witness and the second from the lady involved herself.   At the time I just reacted in the way I saw fit, and it is only now in hindsight that I can try to breakdown what happened and map out a way to handle a similar potential PR disaster in the future.

After I put the phone down on both calls I had a niggling feeling that this perhaps wasn’t the end of the story so I called my wife and asked her to check out the chat on local breastfeeding/mums/Harrogate groups on Facebook and indeed the lady involved had posted an account of the incident across three local groups (with a total membership of 47,500 people locally).  To put this in perspective the population of the town of Harrogate is around 75,000 (although the town draws regular visitors from a much wider district)

Here is that post recreated  (anonymised of course) :
The post on Facebook that created the potential PR disaster

and a flavour of some of the responses from just one of the groups:

Responses to social media post about breast feeding incident: a potential PR disaster

The thing with this incident is that it couldn’t be further from the way we have always approached breast-feeding over the years at Baltzersen’s.  We’ve prided ourselves on being a place that mums can come to and be comfortable about feeding.  I’ve seen my team take special care of mums of young babies and toddlers too – bringing them water, helping with prams etc etc.

I was taken aback but having apologised and clarified Baltzersens’ stance on this with the ladies on the phone I also thought I needed to respond online.   The online groups tend to operate a no-names policy for businesses involved in controversy but I was conscious that this was no time to hide the fact people were talking about my business.  In fact judging from the number of people asking for the business name I could see this desire to know the culprits would fuel the discussion further.

So, I decided to write the following:

Paul's way of dealing with the potential PR disaster

Fairly quickly opinions on the situation began to turn around, no longer a PR disaster the comments were turning positive.  In a two hour period across the three sites the response was published it attracted over 350 likes and lots of positive replies.

Mums who had experience of the cafe spoke about their positive experiences and others were impressed by the honesty of the response.

The lady involved posted about how happy she was with how the situation had been handled and that she felt confident that Baltzersen’s was in fact a breastfeeding friendly cafe.  Later that evening she deleted all three posts because she felt the incident was resolved.

Turning a potential PR disaster into a positive outcome

So if dealing with a similar potential PR disaster in the future how would I do it?

Three primary steps:

Apologise

Give an immediate, genuine and full apology.  Listen to the guest’s complaint (taking notes if possible) and then investigate the situation.

I am slightly removed from the daily service in the cafe and restaurant and I think it gives me a bit more perspective on complaints.  It’s more difficult to be rational and understand other points of view about incidents when you are in the thick of service.  With this in mind sometimes it’s good to take a few deep breaths and try to calm yourself before responding.

Take Responsibility

The account of the incident that I received from my team that were working on the floor varied significantly from the way it was explained to me over the phone and also how it was described on social media – but with two differing accounts there can never be a clear picture of exactly what happens.

I actually wrote my response to the incident and posted it to all three groups before heading downstairs to talk the incident through with my team.  This is a slightly risky choice because you could alienate your own team who may feel they have not been supported – but I felt that it was appropriate in this situation.  The last thing I wanted to do was begin an irreconcilable online debate about who was telling the truth.  The key was to communicate that we were sorry and that this was not the normal way we interact with breast feeding mums.

A lot of this is about perception and the fact a mum felt uncomfortable feeding in the cafe and left having had a bad experience is enough for us to accept culpability.

Respond

I followed up my phone call with the lady involved (and the witness) with an email reiterating how sorry we were and that this was not the norm.  I offered a few ways to try and repair the damage by inviting the lady involved back to the cafe.

The Facebook response was well received and in this specific situation I was fortunate that I have personal (and current) experience of this issue.  I think it made it unlikely that anyone reading the response thought I was being disingenuous.

I spoke with every member of the front of house team before they left that evening.  A couple of them were very upset by the way the incident had played out and been reported, I made it clear I wasn’t attaching blame to anyone.  I explained the sensitivities involved with the topic to try and help some of the team (as young as sixteen) be able to respond with more confidence in the future.

A great book on responding to complaints and one I would recommend is ‘Five Star Service‘ by Michael Heppell.

What now?

I have emailed our local MP Andrew Jones to ask for his support in lobbying Harrogate Borough Council to join the Breast Feeding Welcome campaign – a National Childcare Trust supported initiative that promotes breast feeding awareness.  Their window stickers are well designed, making it clear that breast feeding mothers are welcome to feed anywhere but the establishment displaying them are also particularly welcoming.

I’ll be meeting up with the lady involved to organise a breast-feeding morning at the cafe where we’ll raise some money to be donated to La Leche League.

Things to do now for the small business owner…..

In terms of general advice for small businesses, especially in hospitality and retail, I would say it’s important to be aware of what people are saying about your business.  Three steps to take right now are:

Monitor Local Groups

Joining local Facebook groups is a piece of advice that is worth taking ahead of time.  Incidents can quickly spiral out of control on these forums and it can be extremely damaging to your business if you are in the firing line.  Truth is not always at the top of the agenda, rumours and gossip are the currency and posts with shock value tend to get huge engagement.

On the flip side there are opportunities to engage with your customers/guests and keep your finger on the pulse of what people are talking about in the local area.  Of course there is also a lot of inane chatter that needs to be ignored.  For an example of engagement scroll to the bottom of the page.  I have included some posts from another Facebook thread about my restaurant Norse’s recent Kickstarter campaign, where in a bizarre twist I got accused of terrorism!  This thread appeared after we had posted this blog announcing we were going to run a campaign.  The campaign was subsequently released here and was funded in 100 hours.

A lot of my friends, family and team are also part of these groups so actually monitoring them isn’t a huge task, they often respond on our behalf if people are looking for recommendations or will message me and let me know when something is kicking off.  It doesn’t happen that often!

Setup Google Alerts

To monitor more conventional press and other online content you can setup Google Alerts on certain keywords relating to your business.

Google Your Business

Every once in a while it’s worth typing your business name into a google search and click through a few pages to see what has been written about you.  Good or bad I think it’s always useful to respond.  I wrote in detail about our system for generating and responding to customer feedback here last year.

Summary

Things will go wrong, sometimes in a big way – it’s ok you have time to avert that potential PR disaster.

You can act like a responsible human and deal with it, in general the public (and certainly your own guests/customers) accept that mistakes are made and as long as they see them being rectified they will forgive you.

Show some humility and empathy and actually you might end up getting a pat on the back rather than a slap in the face.  As long as it’s not too heinous an act it’s about your response more than the incident itself.

I’d love to hear about your experiences of managing these types of challenges within your business.  Feel free to drop me a line or write in the comments below.  If you have a situation  that you aren’t sure how to handle and you’d like to discuss it with another business owner I’m happy to chat.

The Great Kickstarter Controversy!

By engaging with people on this local Facebook group I was able to turn the narrative from a fairly aggressive negative post into a positive vibe that led to around 400 additional visitors on our website that day.

Kickstarter-2it also led to my favourite interaction of the post; being called a terrorist!

Terrorist

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