Restaurant owners and managers need to take proactive steps.

Over the course of the last 10 or so weeks, we have seen sobering statistics as it concerns the economy overall, and the restaurant industry in particular. On average, restaurants have laid off over 91 percent of their hourly workforce, and many have closed for good. Those who have been able to stay afloat now face the dual challenge of ramping back up to their typical slate of responsibilities—far from easy even in the best of times—and implementing the new safety regulations mandated in the wake of COVID-19.

And restaurants will be doing all this under the watchful eyes of the Internet. As tensions run high generally, and potentially among restaurant goers and food-service employees and establishments, restaurant owners and managers will need to take proactive steps in order to guard the reputations (and digital profiles) they have worked so hard to build.

Here are five ways to reopen while being mindful of your restaurant’s digital presence:

1. Get clarity on local, state, and federal rules and regulations that govern industry practices in reopening.

With advice and guidance of legal counsel, be sure you have considered and have clarity on all that is expected of you when you reopen, including health and safety considerations, physical space configurations, employee accommodations, and more. If you aren’t clear on what you need to do, you run a much higher risk of overlooking something important or having to address a costly mistake on the back end.

2. Clearly communicate how you are adhering to those rules and regulations, with a special emphasis on changes your patrons are most likely to notice.

Restaurants are implementing an array of changes to accommodate reopening protocols, including, for example, outdoor service only, table distances of 6 feet or more, and employees wearing masks (most states will require all of this and more), among other things. In order to maximize the visibility in your compliance, it is advisable to communicate these changes to your customers, both with tasteful signage at your physical establishment and on your social media channels and website. This not only sends a clear message that you are staying informed and doing everything you can to adhere to laws designed to keep people safe, but it will also instill confidence in your clientele, which is critical for long-term recovery.

3. Provide a clear path for customers to express negative feedback.

Restaurants are vulnerable to public scrutiny in the best of times, and this risk will only increase as restaurants reopen post lockdown. A good way to encourage customers to express constructive criticism directly to the business, and not on a public forum, is to solicit feedback early and often. Distribute comment cards at the host’s stand and include them with the bill. On social media and other channels, invite comments to a monitored email account and by phone. While it may sound counterintuitive, seeking and encouraging private constructive feedback can reduce the chances that negative comments will be posted in a public forum.

4. Respond to and address any public criticism by customers.

Barring specific circumstances (intellectual property violation or a violation of the terms of use of a social media platform), you are unlikely to be able to remove negative comments posted on social media or an online review site (and, yes, often even if those comments are false). However, you can certainly engage politely, positively, and accommodatingly in response, and attempt to rehabilitate any reputational damage by demonstrating that you are willing to listen and address customer concerns. Consider seeking the guidance of legal counsel to proactively prepare a “holding statement” you can use to respond to complaints concerning Covid-19-related matters. 

5. Be mindful of employer/employee rules and regulations when addressing issues that may arise in connection with reopening.

In addition to the risks posed by customer complaints, restaurants also must prepare for the possibility that employees could issue their own grievances on public platforms. Owners and managers should understand that they cannot quash the free speech of employees, including employees’ rights to speak about the terms and conditions of their employment. Blanket policies barring employees from commenting about their work experiences on social media (provided they are not engaging in intellectual property infringement, dangerous speech or other categories of unlawful speech) also cross the line, and those policies can backfire. Establishing employee hotlines and dedicated email addresses as a means for airing grievances will allow you to receive necessary feedback privately and address issues before they can do damage to your reputation.  Working with counsel to implement policies and expectations surrounding social media use in advance is also advisable.  

6. Bonus tip: Be proactive on social media and on your website.

Being proactive about the good work you are doing to keep your customers safe and to restore the experiences your customers are accustomed to will be key to getting back to business. Now is the time to create a series of posts welcoming your customers back and informing them of the daily actions your restaurant is taking to deliver the best experience possible for your customers. 

Desiree F. Moore is a partner at K&L Gates and a founding member of the firm’s Digital Crisis Planning & Response (DCPR) client solution. She counsels clients in proactively planning for and effectively managing digital crises of varying magnitudes, including data breach, online defamation, harassment, and leaked confidential and proprietary information.

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