Part 4: How to Strengthen your Franchise Brand after a Crisis

Social Media can be an effective tool to restore your reputation

“In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” – Albert Einstein

hen it comes to franchises embroiled in a crisis, why is it we can always remember those that handled them badly, rather than those that did an excellent job managing their reputation at a time when their brand was under siege? You may feel inclined to point the finger first at the media for exposing and reporting a franchise that wasn’t prepared when a crisis erupted over food poisoning, data breach, or a serious employee issue. But more than likely, consumers will be driving the negativity.

When airport security thugs dragged a doctor off an overbooked United Airlines flight in April, it was passenger cellphone videos that captured the insensible act and allowed it to be shared to the
world. The airline’s initial communications ignored the plight of the injured doctor, and supported the rough treatment of the paying passenger. This backfired when everyone was able to see the
truth firsthand, resulting in the CEO apologizing two days later. Fast forward three months, and there has been a quick settlement of the doctor’s lawsuit, and the CEO is giving speeches on his commitment and mission to make United the best airline in the world.

The harsh reality today is we live in a world of consumer journalism. Companies can no longer hide and hope a crisis or serious incident goes away. Franchises, especially restaurant franchises, are under the consumer microscope every single day. Patrons can easily post their opinions and share photos of their restaurant experience on third-party websites dedicated to reviews, without any vetting. This is where it can get especially challenging for franchise outlets faced with dealing with unfair or fabricated reviews.

Unlike professional news organizations, there are few rules when it comes to social journalism. While the current U.S. president laments the prevalence of “fake news” and “alternative facts”  impacting his presidency, franchises must deal with real and erroneous claims every day. Albert Einstein realized that even in a company’s darkest hour, there are positive opportunities that can arise from a crisis, when managed properly. Franchises can learn from other franchises, especially those that have managed public employee food-tampering incidents, or where customers died from eating their products.

In a fascinating compilation of the 22 Biggest Crisis Communications Challenges in Restaurant History, global restaurant consultants Aaron Allen & Associates report on crises that have put franchises out of business, and crises that have helped franchises improve their business practices and even grow their business. One of their examples was how Domino’s Pizza became one of
the first companies to use social media to defend its brand reputation in 2009, when two employees filmed a video of themselves performing disgusting acts with Domino’s food products and
posted it to YouTube. These videos quickly made news headlines, greatly enhanced by the millions of views on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. It simply goes to show how quickly social
media can tarnish even a 50-year-old brand, virtually overnight. Two days after the incident, Domino’s President Patrick Doyle posted a video to fight back and help protect the company’s reputation. He apologized for the now fired employees’ behaviour, and assured consumers they wouldn’t tolerate actions that falsely portrayed their food safety. In 2017, taking two days to post a video would be much too long. If possible, this should have been done within hours of the company being made aware of the employees’ actions.

A company spokesperson told ABC News at the time: “If there is a lesson here, it is to move faster than we did.” Although Domino’s made an effort not to hide anything, and despite a rapid response
that addressed the public’s concern, the spokesperson said the company could have responded even faster.

Domino’s turned the crisis into an opportunity to earn consumers’ trust by creating a Pizza Tracker, where guests can follow their food in real time from store to home delivery. Franchises need to be aware and sensitive of the fact that customers now have the ability to use social media as an outlet to air grievances and stage a protest in a matter of minutes. The CEO video helped Domino’s show its sincerity, and its brand and client commitment. The public response helped it recover from the brand-damaging behaviour by two rogue employees. In PR circles, the Domino’s incident is recognized as a responsible way to respond to a crisis.

While Domino’s was praised for using social media, Chipotle Mexican Grill was slammed by crisis management experts in the U.S. when the company initially ignored social media to respond
to norovirus, E. coli, and salmonella outbreaks that sickened consumers in nine states. “I would give them a C,” said Laurel Kennedy, principal of crisis management firm Blink. In a December 10, 2015 article in the Nation’s Restaurants News, she said: “They’re basically absent on social media, which is a huge mistake. On Twitter, there’s page after page of negative coverage.” Chipotle CEO and Founder Steve Ells at the time showed compassion by apologizing on major TV networks and making a serious commitment to making their restaurants the safest place in the world to eat. This February, he told Fortune magazine: “In the upcoming year, we intend to continue to simplify and improve our restaurant operations, utilize creative marketing to rebuild our rand, and further the roll-out of our digital sales efforts.”

Since the crisis, Chipotle has embraced social media in a serious bid to be openly transparent when communicating with consumers about its new and improved food safety measures. It is earning consumers’ trust and investors’ support through its open communications. Another fast food chain that turned it around after a devastating crisis is Jack in the Box. An E. coli bacteria outbreak killed four children, and 600 others were reported sick, after eating undercooked patties contaminated with fecal material containing the bacteria at a location in Tacoma, Washington, and other parts of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s. The chain’s communications were abysmal, throwing skepticism as to whether it knew what it was doing in its kitchens. Jack in the Box was faced with several lawsuits; all were quickly settled. The crisis was so severe, it pushed the company close to bankruptcy, with consumer support at an all-time low.

Jack in the Box initially did not handle the public relations crisis well. It took two days after the health department had traced the bad meat to a supplier before the company addressed the public
and removed all meat from its restaurants. In a November/December 1999 Business Digest story: “How ‘Jack’ Turned Crisis Into Opportunity,” Steve Albrecht, a San Diego expert on corporate crisis management, said: “Consumers don’t want to see any delay or apprehension. Jack in the Box officials did not take immediate decisive action to shut down all the stores for a few days and teach employees how to properly grill hamburgers.”

The hundreds of food poisoning cases reported were linked to undercooked beef at the hamburger chain’s shops. Its cooking practices followed lower cooking temperatures dictated by the FDA, and
not Washington state law that required hamburgers be cooked at least 68°C, the temperature needed to kill E. coli bacteria. Instead of disappearing as result of the serious hit to its reputation and bottom line, Jack in the Box turned things around by adopting best practices and setting new standards for the preparation of its food. The chain has rebounded strongly from the crisis. U.S. media
has reported how the brand turned a serious crisis into an opportunity to restore reputation and instill a new corporate culture. Jack in the Box was fortunate it didn’t have to deal with social
media when this crisis hit. One wonders if the chain could have survived the negative communications that would have been generated in 2017. Franchises beware. If consumers have a beef today, you can be sure they will be aired for all to see.

Jeff Lake is Managing Partner of PUNCH Canada, a Toronto-based public relations agency specializing in franchise communications. Jeff has been making news for his clients for the past 30 years. He has provided crisis communications counsel and crisis communications training for major companies and governments across Canada. Jeff has won two CPRS Awards of Excellence. He can be reached at and 647-837-1264.