Surviving the Kind of Crisis that Makes a Bad Yelp Review Seem Like a Love Note

If you really know the restaurant business, turning a four top in an hour is as easy a task as whipping together a grilled cheese sandwich for a VIP’s kid. But, for most restaurateurs, effectively responding to a local TV news undercover investigation about unsanitary kitchen practices presents a far more difficult challenge. That’s when you need a crisis communications pro with a strategic plan as complex as a Baked Alaska recipe and tactics as sharp as a VG10 steel core chef’s knife. 

A crisis can hit any industry at any time. Yet restaurants face unique circumstances that make crisis response harder. First, few restaurants employ communicators experienced in dealing with the news media. While home offices of restaurant chains employ communications professionals, single-location restaurants and local chain operations typically do not. That’s a stark difference from the millions of businesses that employ PR experts and countless government agencies that have public information officers. 

Restaurants are Different

Restaurant crises are also easy for the general public to understand. Citizens might ignore news accounts of Wall Street insider training or bidding irregularities in a nearby public works project. Yet nearly everyone understands things like food poisoning, sexual harassment of servers and deadly car crashes caused by a delivery driver. 

Learning of a complaint, health issue or other negative feedback before it goes viral will allow for a timely response and can go a long way to help the communications response.

Finally, the most common restaurant crises span a wide range of possibilities and have the added danger of potentially growing as viral news and social media stories. There are terribly difficult crises, such as a shooting on a college campus, that might actually be somewhat easier to address, from a communications perspective, than a group of customers posting about what they claim is an E. coli outbreak at your restaurant. 

These circumstances make it all the more important for restaurants to have a solid crisis communications plan. Plans should be specific to each location and managers should be trained to begin the crisis communications protocol even if additional help will be deployed later. The plan, like a good menu, should be carefully considered, unique to local tastes and reviewed constantly so it remains fresh.

Monitoring for Trouble

Some crises will flare up quickly, but others will simmer like beef stew before finally bubbling over. Proactive monitoring can help avoid a potential crisis before it starts. Start by regularly reviewing social media. This means first checking to see if people are messaging your restaurant directly via your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts. Next, you should search these platforms for people talking about your brand without directly reaching out to you. Reading reviews on sites like Yelp, OpenTable and TripAdvisor are a key component of this proactive work, as well. You can automate these inquiries by using social media management programs like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck and services such as Google Alerts, Mention and Brandwatch can notify you when allegations about your restaurant start to buzz.

Learning of a complaint, health issue or other negative feedback before it goes viral will allow for a timely response and can go a long way to help the communications response. This small investment in prevention will yield savings later. 

The Crisis Team

Every business owner should have at least three key advisors present when crisis response strategies are formed. The first seat at that table is filled by your business attorney. A seasoned and calm legal pro will defend you in a court of law and protect your bottom line. 

The next crucial advisor is a public relations expert, preferably someone with decades of experience dealing with crisis. This communications counselor will defend you in the court of public opinion and protect your other bottom – the one you sit on. It’s also the one the public will want to kick if you don’t handle your crisis correctly.

Finally, you’ll need a factual briefing from whichever subject matter expert in your organization happens to know the details of the particular crisis. This could be the HR manager, a shift supervisor who was on the scene when the situation happened or any other responsible person you trust to give you the necessary information to make good decisions. 

Initial Response

As part of the preparation and planning process, your crisis communications team should identify the most likely potential crises that could befall your operation. For example, a restaurant that’s open all night is more prone to be robbed. A deli with regular deliveries is more likely to be involved in a deadly car accident. And a catering business with a large amount of staff has a better chance to be sued for discrimination or harassment than a mom and pop diner. 

Once you know where the most common dangers lie, you can prepare possible statements so, in the event a crisis hits, the initial response can be shared immediately with just a few additional revisions. These “holding statements” may not offer many details but proving such a response will allow you to avoid the cardinal communications sin of saying, “no comment” when a reporter calls. An example of a holding statement might be, “we’ve received reports of some customers becoming sick, so we’re reviewing the facts carefully to find out what actually occurred. The health and safety of our customers is our top priority and we’ll share further information as we have it.” 

Coordinate with Outside Agencies


If a crisis involves outside agencies such as police, fire or health departments, you should appoint a trusted person (not you – you’ll be busy with other tasks) to be a liaison to that outside organization. That person can obtain status updates and provide internal feedback. Most government agencies will have their own public information officers, so having a restaurant liaison will allow for the coordination of timing and messaging with those communicators.

Act Quickly, But Responsibly

Acting quickly to address a crisis provides you the best chance of a positive result. If your night shift manager is accused of sexually harassing female servers and one of the women has filed a lawsuit, you should expect a news story and you must respond before that story runs.

Acting quickly to address a crisis provides you the best chance of a positive result.

Find out as much as you can, huddle with your crisis team and craft a media statement. Send that response to the reporter. If TV news is covering the story, consider stating the response on video and sending that video to the TV stations. If you try this effective (but very challenging) tactic, don’t read your statement from a script. The final product should look more like a caring response and less like a hostage video. 

On-Going Reaction

The crisis communications plan is still needed after the media leave the scene. On-going monitoring, further response and the need to rebuild trust mean that the crisis communications plan will continue for months. By identifying people who care about or can affect your operation, you’ll know who you need to work with to re-establish support and trust. In addition, give someone the responsibility of monitoring news accounts and social media to determine the impact and community response to the coverage of your crisis.

Avoid Jargon

Yes, even restaurants have jargon terms. Train managers to understand that, in media statements at least, insider terms should be “86ed.” Write your message assuming your audience reads at the eighth-grade level. And here’s another reason to think of your audience as students…

Be a Teacher

Remember that most people who read about your crisis will know nothing of the health code or restaurant industry practices. Teaching them about your operation will be more effective than treating them like they should already know.

Here’s an example: “Less than 20 percent  of American restaurants provide health insurance to employees, often because most staff work part-time. While our café is in a similar situation, we’re working to find affordable solutions to help our team stay healthy and get better more quickly when they’re sick.”

Review and Train

Your crisis communications plan shouldn’t sit on a shelf like a dusty Betty Crocker cookbook bound in Harvest Gold. It needs to be a living document that’s regularly reviewed and updated. Furthermore, the members of the crisis communications team should receive regular training on best practices and new developments. That’s especially true in this age of social media where every restaurant is a juicy target for critics and cynics who had a bad meal or a rude server.

So, today our chef recommends the pro-active crisis communications plan with a hearty side dish of training. What will you be having?