Be prepared and ready to respond in a timely manner with facts.

Word of mouth travels fast. In fact, it’s likely there’s a conversation going on about your restaurant right now. Under the right circumstances, the conversation can go from zero to viral. Sadly, they’re usually the wrong ones. These days it’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN your restaurant will have a PR crisis, and “no comment” is no longer an option.

Smartphones and user-generated content pose a challenge for restaurants of all sizes. Poor reviews, videos, and live broadcasts of customer service problems, emergencies, or other social issues can begin trending online virtually instantly. Go viral, and the crisis will spill across social media platforms, potentially reaching millions. If you’re not listening closely and proactively engaging with customers, you’re running at high risk for a PR crisis. How you respond is everything.

If you legitimately can’t comment due to lack of information or legal concerns, say so and let people know your restaurant will be addressing questions and concerns as soon as possible. Respond in a timely manner with the facts. This is all assuming you’re prepared.

Think a PR Crisis Can’t Happen to Your Restaurant? Think Again.

In recent months, we’ve seen a variety of public relations nightmares ranging from short-term issues like 600-plus U.K. restaurants closed due to running out of food (KFC), to racism (Starbucks), and gun violence (Waffle House).

The PR team representing KFC promptly addressed the issue through a humorous ad that predictably went viral in a good way. The latter situations call for ongoing public statements and follow-up actions to be communicated over a longer time frame.

Unexpected organizational situations are not the only things business owners and CEOs should to be concerned about: a possible crisis could be brewing within a support industry or supplier.

Rose Acre farms, producer of some 2.3 million eggs daily, recalled more than 207 million eggs after a salmonella outbreak that sickened 35 people was traced back to their farm in North Carolina. The eggs were distributed under multiple brands to retailers and restaurants in multiple states. Consumer fears had to be addressed by any retailer or restaurant that may have received contaminated egg shipments. Your organization may have been one of them.

What to Do Before You’re Facing a PR Crisis

No one wants to imagine the worst-case scenario happening, but it’s easier to plan ahead of time than scramble and feel unprepared if something does happen. Here are some immediate steps you can take to protect your customers, employees, brand, and investment:

Monitor Social Media and Review Sites: Answering social media reviews/posts quickly is critical. This applies to good reviews/posts and bad. Set Google alerts for your business ‘as they happen.’ Hire a Social Media person or team to manage your brand online and spot potential problems. Empower people to solve problems before they escalate, and provide clear guidelines for when to call for help. Have some pre-approved general crisis responses available to let people know you’re aware of a problem and actively working on it.

Form a Crisis Communication Team: Having a dedicated team will help prepare your company for assembling a quick response that can help minimize the adverse effects on your restaurant, your customers, and your brand.

Draft a Crisis Response Plan: At the most basic level, this plan should break down who the crisis communication team will be (with contact information), include a list of stakeholders who will need to be communicated with, define a process for talking with the media and for disseminating information on social media, and a response action plan. Make this plan readily available for your on-site team/s to access in case of an emergency.

Draft Operational Crisis Protocols: From C-Suite to Social Media down to retail level, a well-trained staff with clear company protocols to follow is not only good for employees with a possible crisis on their hands, it helps shorten the official notifications and reaction timelines.

Designate One Spokesperson and Communicate: In the world of crisis communications, the phrase “actions speak louder than words” will not get you far. You have to use the right words and take the right actions quickly. Choose one voice to do all of the talking. Ideally, this person should be well-versed in talking to the media. They must be perceived as authentic. They should understand key marketing messages, and when necessary, they should be on-site as soon as possible after something happens.

Don’t leave your reputation on the line or in the hands of people who are untrained or unauthorized to respond for one more minute. Create an effective crisis management team and plan. Stay one step ahead, and you can minimize the negative impact of a crisis situation.

Expert Takes, Feature