Crisis Management for Restaurants

TGPR Partner Susan Tellem’s article, originally published in Restaurant Management Magazine on June 27, 2016.

bug in food

There’s a … in My Soup – Crisis Management for Restaurants

by Susan Tellem

5 Min Read

A woman found a condom in her clam chowder.

A man found a roach in his hash browns.

Knife. Bullet. Mouse. Blood. Bandage. Finger. Tampon. OK. I’ll stop.

These are all items, albeit dangerous and disgusting, that people have discovered in their food at sit-down restaurants and takeouts. Some may be added on purpose by the guest to extract money, but a large majority were included in the food by careless employees.

None of the restaurants I have worked with in a crisis had a written crisis plan. Experience shows that most restaurants fail to plan effectively about how they will trigger their response, only to figure it out as collateral damage occurs and the problem expands. Have you said to yourself or others, “It won’t happen to us.”

Where Is Your Crisis Plan?

Nowadays, with a 24-7 news cycle and social media, it’s no longer safe to assume the crisis will go unnoticed and that you will be back in business in no time. The potential restaurant crises are many … sexual harassment accusations, worker injuries or death, fires, active shooters, poisoning, inclement weather, computer or power failures, and, of course, lawsuits. I’m sure you follow sites like barfblog.com, Food Poisoning Bulletin and others that showcase food problems. If you don’t, you should.

If you don’t have a crisis plan, you need one. Today. Start by reviewing a vulnerability survey (see below). Use this time to (1) review of existing manuals; (2) how you address potential problems; and (3) write a brief of findings, along with next steps.

Next, hold a half- or full-day seminar on crisis preparedness and management, including guest speakers – include a food safety expert, crisis management public relations expert, a local reporter and an attorney familiar with these issues. Also recommended is creating a short educational video that can be shown to staff – a “how to” primer on avoidance of common procedures that can lead to a crisis. A video is ideal because the same information is offered over and over to new and old employees, and is a consistent message as opposed to different staff conveying different messages or leaving out important information all together. Make sure that it is bilingual. Responding to a crisis instead of proactively preventing it can be costly and is not an acceptable communications strategy.

Here are suggestions for a top-notch crisis management video and manual:

  • An assessment of the risks faced by the restaurant
  • A checklist of actions that should be taken when an emergency threatens or actually occurs
  • Assignments for those who must carry out those actions (at least three people should be assigned whenever possible)
  • A means for coordinating information gathering, preparation and dissemination, both internally and with external organizations
  • Identification of key organizations – fire, police, ambulance
  • A listing of essential audiences who must be kept informed, including reporters, legal, insurance company, government, etc. A plan for monitoring media and concerns of employees, the general public and others

Handling a Crisis

A shooting has occurred on the premises, and the victim is an employee. The alleged perpetrator is a disgruntled employee. The victim is deceased. The police are surrounding the area, and reporters are coming out of the woodwork. Now what? A member of management must immediately notify the person responsible for coordinating communications at your restaurant – day or night – in the event of an emergency. Only this person will be responsible for the dissemination of any information regarding the situation, regardless of the nature or complexity.

Evaluating the Incident

Your emergency communications coordinator may contact public relations counsel as soon as he or she verifies all details of the emergency and consults with the PR professionals about the proper response. The crisis coordinator should have the home phone numbers of public relations representatives and should be able to reach them at any time.

Implement Internal Response

Vendors, family members and other audiences need to have their hands held during the crisis. Let them know that everything possible is being done to remedy the situation in the quickest possible manner. At this point, the communications coordinator should begin keeping a log of events, actions, times and phone inquiries. This system will help document who has what information. Make sure that you keep a contact list of any media who may have made an inquiry.

Quick Tips

Working with the media is probably one of the most daunting aspects of working through a crisis. Remember:

  • A media-intensive case can occur in anywhere
  • Stonewalling and “no comment” don’t work
  • Lack of engagement is passivity which invites “media frenzy”
  • You can be overwhelmed, discredited or demoralized if you do not have a crisis plan to handle the media

Your goals should be to:

  • Satisfy the public’s right-to-know without compromising the victim’s rights
  • Alleviate media overload with printed statements as handouts
  • Do not let staff talk to the press-have strict rules-make it known that they could be terminated if they do not comply
  • Work closely with legal counsel and your insurance company
  • Keep followers in the loop through social media. You can learn a lot from their posts – maybe even dispel rumors and keep long-time customers happy

Media relations actions to take:

  • Draft a press statement
  • Create and/or update media database
  • Distribute information in a timely manner
  • Field media inquiries quickly
  • Talk and meet one on one with local press via a press briefing
  • Work hand in hand with legal counsel

Your results should be:

  • Media inquiries redirected to PR team or consultant relieve manager and staff
  • Media receive the latest and most complete information, and generally stop bugging you
  • Press briefings are focused and informative
  • Improved coordination exists among media, PR, legal and the owners

In today’s world with so many people and so little time, tempers are short, accidents happen, and crises can happen anywhere. Being prepared can make the difference between a good outcome and a disastrous one.

Short Form Vulnerability Audit

Take this vulnerability audit and see if you need help getting your organization on a crisis track.

  • Who is on your crisis team? Pick people who can think on their feet, are good spokespeople and have related experience – do not choose the head of the organization.
  • Do you have friends in your court if you need them? This would include reporters, regulators, inspectors, politicians, police, health department, etc.
  • Do you honestly monitor possible problems that could lead to a crisis, such as employee relationships, safety issues, confidentiality issues or termination problems?
  • Do you have a written book of organizational policies?
  • Do you have a list of emergency numbers/cell phones to be able to reach key people at a second’s notice?
  • How do you handle belligerent employees?
  • How do you handle sexual harassment accusations?
  • Are you familiar with emergency response teams in your area?
  • When was the last time that you had an emergency evacuation drill? What’s your media list like? When was it updated?

If you have had any trouble answering these questions or did not know the answer to even one of them, you need to perform a complete vulnerability audit, and soon.

Tellem Grody PR’s (TGPR) Food Issues Group (FIG) offers crisis coverage for food poisonings, poor letter grades, natural disasters, sexual harassment claims and other crises.  FIG pairs TGPR partner Susan Tellem, APR, RN, BSN, who has 30 years of crisis management experience with Jeff Nelken, MA, RD, an experienced professional in all aspects of food safety and inspection.  For additional information, visit www.tellemgrodypr.com  or email Susan.