There’s a World of Risk for Restaurateurs:

How to Respond in a Communications Crisis

A restaurant can be one of the most stressful, backbreaking and, yet, exhilarating businesses to own or operate.  A successful restaurant takes a willingness to work long hours, train quality staff, astute marketing, and attention to detail for everything from ordering supplies to plating the meal.  Most of all, it demands—and rewards—a real love of food and serving people.

The result is one of America’s most vibrant and important industries, a vital contributor to our lifestyle and economy.  According to most recent data from the National Restaurant Association, over 1 million restaurant locations generate nearly $800 billion in annual revenues, more than $2 billion daily, which works out to more than 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.  Today’s 14.7 million restaurant industry employees represent a healthy 10 percent of the overall U.S. work force. The restaurant industry expects to create 1.6 million new jobs by the year 2027.

For those in the business, challenges abound.  From a one-of-a-kind fine dining establishment to quick-service regional or national chains, the potential for a damaging crisis is ever present, and the threats can come from many different directions, escalating quickly.

Certainly, food safety is a well-publicized threat and often involving problems with the food supply chain, in-house storage, handling or preparation of food, or issues with food workers and their health status.

With the hundreds of millions of meals served daily in the United States, it is clear that our food delivery system is overwhelmingly safe. However, despite our best efforts, breakdowns in our complex food chain do occur. While not all foodborne illnesses are reported, according to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, an estimated 48 million people (1 in 6) get sick from food eaten in the United States.

But the vulnerabilities don’t end there.  Any business must ensure that it follows the most up to date, human resource practices.  In addition, restaurateurs must guard against a disgruntled employee hell-bent on damaging the brand either verbally or through social media.

In summary, food chain safety, how food is stored and prepared, employment practices and staff behavior can all precipitate a business and communications crisis.

Crisis prevention and preparation 

Moreover, as dining is both a social and personal activity, when something does go wrong, these disruptions can quickly become flashpoints originating in social media, go viral and then picked up by the news media.  Interestingly, the media regularly monitor social media to pick up ideas for their news stories.  Social media today is extremely influential and should be monitored regularly by restaurateurs.

For responsible restaurateurs, crisis prevention and preparation should be considered from internal and external aspects.  Internally, the best defense against a restaurant crisis is staff training and having a formal crisis communication plan in place.  Crisis prevention starts with excellent staff training, including ongoing sensitivity training, and an organizational climate that demands compliance with food safety, mutual respect among employees and managers, and taking great care of guests.  The reality is that a staff member can be a business’s greatest brand ambassador, or its worst, as we have seen recently in other industries.

Restaurants should have a detailed crisis communication plan in place that:

  • Considers potential crises and how to respond to them;
  • Has key messages in place;
  • Has an identified spokesperson and chain of command;
  • Identifies the media (TV, radio, print, online, social media) in your market and how they will be monitored;
  • Identifies supporters;
  • Addresses a detailed game plan to win back “confidence and customers” after the initial crisis is resolved; and
  • Trains your spokesperson and staff in this plan.

While developing a crisis communication plan in advance of a crisis requires a meaningful investment in time and thought, the exercise of putting together a detailed plan becomes a valuable training and strategic planning document.  It helps a restaurant owner look at new ways to identify and anticipate potential risks, threats and responses.

Restaurateurs should first prepare for a crisis externally by pursuing and maintaining great relationships with a broad range of important audiences and potential allies in any crisis situation.  These include local business and elected leaders; nonprofits and community groups; and groups like Chambers of Commerce and regional or state restaurant associations.

There are so many natural ways for restaurants to help the community, including everything from sponsoring a softball team, bowling league or 10K run to contributing to local food banks and campaigns to combat hunger.  Work to your strengths and, should a crisis arise, allies are in place.

Crisis response

The goals of a crisis communications plan are to be able to quickly answer the crisis or unpleasant situation promptly and honestly; reassure customers and suppliers; diffuse attention in both traditional news media and social media; and, once resolved, to win back customers.

Unfortunately, in many public relations crises, companies are slow to recognize the urgency of the situation; the affront to previously loyal customers; and the stress imposed on staff now facing suspicions of “bad” behavior.

People can quickly detect insincerity and avoidance of the issue.  Guided by a detailed crisis communication plan, restaurateurs should take ownership of the issue, acknowledge what happened and announce what steps are being taken to investigate or remedy the issue, as appropriate.  Show empathy.  Be human.  Finding out the cause of something can be a drawn-out process; expressing sincerity should never be.

A good plan will identify print, broadcast, online and social media that should be monitored. When a crisis strikes, it is essential to reach out to stakeholders and allies who must be kept informed.  A smart owner will maintain strong relationships with the media, allies like trade associations and others.  As a result, restaurateurs will have credible partners to call on for support, including through media interviews, letters to the editor, an appearance at a public hearing or making positive comments online through social media.

More than ever, the restaurant business is fraught with risk.  One mistake or misconception or someone with a smart phone and a bad attitude can negate a lifetime spent developing a brand and a reputation for safe and delicious food and gracious service.  The road to stability begins with understanding the risks, developing and maintaining solid relationships ahead of time, and a well-formulated crisis communication plan on hand should a crisis strike.


Michael Layne is president of Detroit-based Marx Layne & Company, a public relations agency specializing in crisis communications and the restaurant industry since 1987.


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