Public Relations Disaster Masters and Messes & 5 Ways to Recover

March 22, 2016 | blog | By Mike Sullivan


If you found your restaurant in the middle of a PR disaster, what would you do? The way you react in the aftermath of a PR crisis can make all the difference in how quickly you recover and how effectively you maintain your loyal customer base. Let’s look at some examples of PR disaster masters and messes, then we’ll go over five ways to recover from bad publicity.

The Masters 

Taco Bell: In 2011, Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company, was slapped with a lawsuit alleging the quick service restaurant’s “seasoned beef” contained only 35 percent beef and that Taco Bell lied in its ads. Taco Bell quickly launched a PR campaign using traditional media, online ads, and a social media blitz, and even revealed its “secret recipe” to show the seasoned beef ratio is actually 88 percent beef, 12 percent secret recipe. The majority of customers responded positively on social media, and in less than four months, the lawsuit was dropped.

Chipotle: The company that touts “food with integrity” hasn’t quite made it through the PR nightmare that started in November 2015 with an E. coli outbreak, but the chain is making moves in the right direction. They voluntarily closed stores where the outbreaks occurred to investigate the issue.

“The safety of our customers and integrity of our food supply has always been our highest priority,” said Steve Ells, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle, in a statement toUSA Today.

On February 8, the chain closed all stores nationwide for an all-employee meeting on food safety, and offered free burritos to customers via online coupons. Some customers were angry about the closure, but shutting down during lunch proved the company is committed to making things right again.

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The Messes 

New Coke: In April 1985, Coca-Cola rolled out its first major marketing change in the company’s 99-year history. And all hell broke loose. When the reformulated “new Coke” hit the shelves, consumers began hording the old formula and staging protests against the company. Two months after the new formula rollout, the company was getting 1,500 calls a day on its consumer hotline compared with 400 a day before the change. By July of that same year, the company reversed course and brought back the original formula. “We set out to change the dynamics of sugar colas in the United States, and we did exactly that—albeit not in the way we had planned,” then chairman and chief executive officer Roberto Goizueta said in 1995 at an employee event at the 10-year anniversary mark of “new Coke.”

BP: In the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, 2010, that killed 11 crew members and spilled an estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, the company made just about every PR blunder imaginable. First, BP had no immediate response. In part, this could have been because then-CEO Tony Hayward had slashed the PR staff to save money. As spokesperson for the company, he was a greatyachtsman. On May 17, he downplayed the spill’s environmental impact calling it “relatively tiny” compared to the ocean, but flipped 10 days later, telling CNN the event was “an environmental disaster.” His most cringe-worthy moment was responding to a reporter’s question about the duration of the cleanup by saying, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” Huh? BP gave him back his life with an ouster at the end of July. Too bad, really, considering a good PR team – and perhaps a muzzle for Hayward – could’ve done the trick.

The company eventually took steps in the right direction by investing in social media (they had no dedicated social media staff before the disaster—startling for a company with close to 80,000 employees). They now have a page on their website devoted to the accident and a response that includes an apology.

Well, that’s all we’ll give you of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here are five ways restaurants can recover from bad publicity:

  • Ostrich method – Sticking your head in the sand and pretending the media isn’t writing about you might work—for about five minutes. While many CEOs might initially want to ignore the problem and hope the media will latch on to another story in the next news cycle, you could lose your customers’ trust by failing to acknowledge the issue. However, depending on the severity of situation, silence isn’t always negative. For example, if you get a bad Yelp review, it’s on the customer, their spelling, and all the ways their review was wrong.
  • Mea Culpa method – Face the crisis head on. Take responsibility. Even if you believe you did nothing wrong, if you’ve lost public trust, an apology goes a long way in rebuilding your reputation.
  • Making amends method – Demonstrating you are making positive changes to rectify the situation is another great way to win back your customer base and show you understand the significance of the issue.
  • Go Pro method – We’re not talking about the wearable camera; we mean hiring a professional PR agency to help you navigate the stormy waters of your publicity disaster. Beyond advising you on your next move—press release or social media blitz or both – a good PR team—we can also act as a buffer between you and the media by fielding inquiries or issuing statements.
  • Transparency method – Communicate to your customers exactly what’s happening and how you’re dealing with it, and keep communicating until the situation is rectified.

Takeaway message: Plan ahead. Much like a natural disaster, it’s better to have a disaster preparedness plan in place rather than risk knee-jerk responses a la Tony Hayward. If you don’t have your own PR pro on staff, talk to an agency about developing a plan of action.

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


We challenge underdog brands to think differently. We help them find their voice, and urge them to blaze new trails to make sure they stand out from the pack. Whether you need an agency of record or support on a project, we are here to help you win.