When an unbranded pub-restaurant was at the centre of a food-poisoning outbreak in which 30 customers were taken ill, and one sadly died, the words “there but” and “for the grace of God” would have been front of mind for many pub and restaurant group CEOs.

The crisis, in which one customer died, was compounded when the ensuing court hearing concluded that parent company Mitchells & Butlers was partly responsible due to material health and safety failings at the venue because two members of staff – including the GM – were handed prison sentences for doctoring compliance records after the event.

It’s clearly a devastating situation with lessons for the entire industry, and now part of the narrative of a seemingly increasing tide of crisis management and communications situations, for which companies must prepare.

When things go wrong

Sometimes in business, whether you work at Burger King, BP or in banking, things just go wrong. One could write a book on crises, and crisis management and communication (some people have even actually written some good ones). For an industry so reliant and exposed to human beings – to everyday decision making, judgment calls, mistakes and oversights – it is surprising how few organisations plan accordingly. The important disciplines for businesses fall into three broad areas:

¬ Minimising the risk of a crisis in the first place (file under risk management)

¬ Preparing for the crisis that will inevitably visit (and potentially blindside) your organisation

¬ Drilling all colleagues so they know exactly what to do when the proverbial hits the fan

All three of these are big pieces of work.  The first is clearly the biggest because it speaks to best practice and solid disciplines across the business, which minimise the risk of compromises or failings, and the knock-on impact to reputations and customer trust.

In the case of the aforementioned business, that particular restaurant business appeared not to have been adequately maintaining health and safety checks and records – the regular audits that are a necessary part of ensuring minimum standards.  It is probably an isolated incident for M&B and it will no doubt have undertaken a root and branch review of such practices at every restaurant. However, I am told that the falsifying and backdating of such paperwork at site level is a massive issue across the foodservice industry. If that is the case, then many businesses are exposed. They are, in effect, incubating a destructive reputation-damaging and profit-eroding crisis, and should brace themselves.

Failing to prepare

Phases two and three are where senior management and the communications team earn their keep. If two – the planning and preparation – is done properly then the organisation is in a good position to deliver the best possible outcome from a crisis situation when it does come calling.

The crucial planning and preparation piece requires some educated crystal-ball gazing: assessing where the business is vulnerable and what crisis scenarios are possible. PR types refer to this as a crisis audit – knowing where the potential issues are likely to arise and planning accordingly.  This exercise can often highlight areas where working practices can be tightened or changed, providing a useful feedback loop into phase one (minimising risks). It’s where risk management and corporate communications should meet, although sometimes there is an organisational gap.

Every company in the eating and drinking-out market should have an established crisis response team, with clear roles and responsibilities.  Do you know yours? This team will have set procedures to identify the type and severity of the crisis – from an alien item found in food to the highest level, such as a customer death or terrorist incident – and respond accordingly.

Within the crisis response team there will be clearly defined spokespeople, whose job it is to communicate with all stakeholders, be it colleagues, the media or shareholders.  There will also be very clear rules around who does and who doesn’t communicate on behalf of the organisation. Sometimes situations dictate that the spokesperson needs to be the individual at the helm of the company. Some CEOs we work with have a natural flair for this part of their role; many get there with coaching; and some, with the best will in the world, delegate – with the role of external spokesperson naturally falling to someone else within the senior leadership team.

The best brands and businesses (and the best leaders) understand the importance of putting the top person in front of the media (when the situation requires).

Domino’s Pizza understood this when two employees in a Domino’s kitchen in Conover, North Carolina, filmed themselves doing some horrible things to the food, and then posted it on social media. It would have been very easy for management to dismiss it as a prank and ignore. However, in very short order, Domino’s US president Patrick Doyle posted a video of his own on YouTube explaining what actions his business was taking (see box above). Domino’s ‘got it’ – the symbolism of the acts of these employees, the impact on reputation and the need to get out there and address it on YouTube, the very same channel where the damage had been done. Conversely, part of Tony Hayward’s unfortunate legacy as former CEO of BP were his inept performances as the public face of the organisation during the Deepwater Horizons crisis. At a time when some people had lost their lives, many were losing their livelihoods, and an environmental disaster of significant proportions was unfolding, who could forget his self-absorbed confession that he “wanted his life back”. It revealed a lack of self-awareness – of his role, for what was happening around him, and what people needed to hear from a leader.

Time to clean the fan

So what to do when an issue hits? This is when planning and preparation kicks in so that everyone, from GM and shift team, up to senior directors, knows exactly what to do. In the same way pub and restaurant groups construct the customer journey – so that it is understood by all colleagues then drilled and tested – it is critical the same approach is taken to the crisis management and communications journey.

There is no set rule for course of action; the important thing is that there is a single rule in any given company, and that everyone sings the same song. For example, colleagues at one multiple-site group we work with know that when something happens, they make one call – to the mobile of the divisional director.  The director calls us and, if appropriate, the CEO. Any ensuing media calls are directed to us without any comment or engaging in any conversation to any external stakeholder. Then the crisis management and communication team kicks in. Its role is to deal with the crisis so the wider team can focus on business.

In terms of how to respond to a specific issue or situation, this is the million-dollar question. Again, you could write a book.  Every situation is different but the motives are almost always the same – to protect the reputation of the company, to engender trust and to build a sense that the company is ‘doing the right thing’. The public remains cynical about the motives of corporates, so where possible, clear, open, jargon-free language are the hallmarks of good communication. It is OK to apologise; if an apology is required, do it quickly.

Fail to prepare…

In the same way good communication and PR – and a sustained period of reputation building – adds substantial value to the ultimate worth of a brand or enterprise, a bad situation can impact reputation, erode trust and drive negative perceptions not just for customers but employees, suppliers, landlords, investors and the media.

Given the speed at which damage that can be meted out to company reputation is measured in minutes and hours, rather than days and weeks, it is surprising how often organisations are found operating with flawed risk management and crisis management procedures. Breaking the crisis and communications journey down into three (very) broad constituent parts – of risk audit, planning, and execution – creates a platform from which an organisation can, with a fair wind, manage its way through the inevitable crisis.

Doing everything possible to prevent one is important, but sometimes things just go wrong. Knowing what to do is where the rubber meets the road.

When things go wrong…

BP – the British oil giant’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico suffered a large-scale explosion, resulting in loss of life and one of the largest environmental disasters ever. In addition to costing the company many billions of pounds and the lasting damage done to its reputation, it is also remembered for the inept media performances of then CEO Tony Hayward, who part way through the crisis, when trying to articulate how much time he was spending addressing the fallout, uttered the immortal line: “I’d quite like my life back.” It was the beginning of the end of his tenure.

Starbucks – one of a number of international companies that was found not to be paying any corporation tax in the UK, despite UK-derived revenues of almost £400m. Although technically loss-making, critics said that company was taking advantage of complex multi-company structures and sourcing practices (such as buying its coffee beans at very full prices through another Starbucks company registered in Switzerland), as well as chunky royalty fees paid to its US parent company.

Aftershock – (read here for any high-alcohol, high-energy drinks product) the shooter brand was at the centre of an unfortunate tragedy when one customer died of alcoholic poisoning after drinking a fatal number of units (thought to have been up to 25 shots), putting the brand at the centre of a debate over the future of the shooter category.

Nightjar – the award-winning London cocktail bar, which regularly appears in the World’s 50 Best Bars index, was the subject of unwelcome headlines when one of its employees created a ‘Moby Dick’ cocktail, which included whisky-infused whale skin sourced during a trip to Japan. Following an outcry from conservationists and national press, and a raid by police, the bar withdrew the product and issued an abject apology – a good example of the “hands-up, we got it wrong” statement.

Horsemeat – one of the most high-profile food scandals of recent times visited several UK food producers and grocery retailers, when horsemeat was found in a plethora of products. A gift for the writers at Have I Got News For You, and a damaging crisis for the food industry, the FSA and the government.

McDonald’s – a few years ago, the world’s biggest burger business was gripped by a tide of negativity over its food and production processes, partly driven by the media and books such as Fast Food Nation. This period saw McDonald’s become the subject of a documentary film, Super Size Me, by journalist Morgan Spurlock examining the impact of an McDonald’s-only diet. Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days, which seemingly took a dramatic toll on his short-term health.

Making bad situations… better

Greggs – the high street baker was the victim of a cruel website hack, which saw its logo replaced with an alternative, which included the tagline “providing shit to scum for over 70 years”. Although the company fixed the problem quickly, the offending item was still searchable via Google and therefore accessible. The Greggs digital team mobilised quickly, using social media to launch a friendly campaign calling on Google to (please) address the issue. When all was resolved, Greggs sent Google a picture of ‘doodle’ made from sausage rolls – as a thank you – winning plaudits for its deft handling of a tricky situation, in both the national and digital press.  

Domino’s Pizza Inc – two employees filmed themselves doing some rather unsavoury things to pizzas before sending the said items out for delivery to unsuspecting customers (although they later claimed it was a hoax). They posted their deeds on YouTube for all to see. The company responded quickly with the US President & CEO Patrick Doyle broadcasting on YouTube to tell customers that the offending team members had been dismissed and to reinforce Domino’s brand: its food quality, kitchen standards, its training, its recruitment policies and what is expected and required of colleagues. Doyle told viewers that there was “nothing more sacred to us than our customers’ trust”.

British Midland – the airline that eventually became BMI then part of British Airways is the oft-quoted example of CEO-led crisis communications. In 1989, the company was at the centre of one of the worst aviation disasters on British soil when a flight from London to Belfast encountered engine failure and came down on a section of the M1 motorway at Kegworth, while attempting an emergency landing at East Midlands airport. A tragedy from which little good could possibly have emerged, but the company’s CEO Sir Michael Bishop was credited for his handling of the situation. He arrived at the scene quickly, conducting interview after interview, and answering questions from the public. It helped that a remarkable 79 people survived the crash.

Mark Stretton is managing director of Fleet Street Communications, a trade and corporate communications firm specialising in the food, drink, leisure and hospitality industries. Email mark@fsc.uk.co.uk.