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Communication in a Crisis: Putting out the right words in a tough time

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Restaurants across Canada (and let’s be honest, across the world) are still in the throws of pandemic disease, rolling mandatory shutdowns in some areas, and reopening with unprecedented health guidelines and seating limits.

The agility and on-the-fly thinking collectively displayed by the foodservice and hospitality industry is nothing short of remarkable, despite for all our efforts, we are still facing a crisis. The recent rise of a second wave – perhaps even worse than the initial appearance of COVID-19 – has restaurants seeing restrictions tightening back up.

Entering what is generally the leaner months, restaurants will again be forced to scale back operations…or even shutter their doors. Regardless of what you choose, the difference between keeping (or growing) customer trust or fading into irrelevance will be pinpoint communication.

But what exactly should you say? How should you say it? What have we learned from the first wave that we can utilize now? We’ve spoken with some crisis communication experts to provide guidance on how to best get your messages across.

Learning from recent history

Looking back at how the foodservice and hospitality industry as a whole communicated during the first wave of the pandemic, one thing was abundantly clear: the vast majority of restaurants were not prepared to handle a crisis of this magnitude.

“I would guess that most restaurants in Canada wouldn’t have a crisis management strategy in place. My guess is less than half, maybe even 25 per cent had a crisis communications plan in place,” says Stephen Murdoch, Vice President of Public Relations for Enterprise Canada. “That being said, even if you did have a crisis strategy in place, certainly a pandemic wasn’t part of it, so this was a great lesson for restaurants from coast-to-coast to have a crisis strategy in place.”

In the first wave of COVID, restaurants were able to procure insight into what resonates best with customers in times of crisis, and you might be surprised at how tolerant people are towards the truth.

“It’s a bit of a misconception that people will panic if you give them bad news,” explains John Larsen, Edelman Canada’s Executive Vice President and National Practice Lead for Crisis and Reputation Risk. “That’s not actually the case: people have a high level of resilience to bad news—if it makes sense to them and if it’s contextualized.”

Larsen, who saw things from both sides of the coin as he is also the co-owner of the Two House Brewhouse in Calgary, explained that people are more understanding and accepting of the restrictions we’ve had when they realize it’s for their safety.

He also noted that between the first and second wave, people were more attracted, more supportive and more trusting of restaurants and organizations that actually took those safety measures and acted quickly to implement them.

Saying it the right way

While the first wave required a lot of reactionary maneuvers to manage the chaotic and unknown, restaurants still had to deal with the internal stress of managing staff, suppliers and the day-to-day business. Keeping that stress from trickling out into your communications was another pivotal learning for restaurants and communications agencies alike, including Toronto-based Butter PR.

“It was of the utmost importance then, and still is now, to remain as calm and honest as possible in your communications,” says Butter Founder and Principal Shawn Rusich.

He added that divulging details on the state of your business or financial situation is unnecessary, but just communicating the offerings you’re able to have or how you’re pivoting to offer new things will keep you a little more unique than your competitors.

Going a step further beyond being calm and honest, everyone agreed that communicating during a time of crisis is about reaching people on a human level.

Josh Cobden, the Executive Vice President and Toronto General Manager for Proof Strategies Inc., explains that communicating regularly with facts and updates, showing empathy and connecting on shared values are crucial to ensure consumer confidence during a crisis.

“People respond better to the language that is less about business and more about people and their stories,” says Cobden. “A crisis is not a time for humor, bravado, promotion or speculation.”

For larger restaurants or chains, having localized and regional staff are a huge advantage in ensuring your communications hit the audience in a proper manner. Murdoch urges the empowerment of regional staff, as they know their market and their audience best and also, when possible, put your leaders in the spotlight: it’s important to show leaders who care.

It’s also important to maintain a somewhat neutral stance, especially during times of heightened tension, anxiety and unease for so many. Rusich notes that when owners take control of their companies’ social media and communicate personal opinions (such as disapproval or anger) towards organizations and those involved in pandemic decision-making, it can make you look bitter and tarnish customer perception.”

He does stress, however, that maintaining your brand voice is imperative throughout your communications.

“A brand voice is something that is worked on for years and it’s finely-tuned,” says Rusich. “It’s developed to a point where you can be presented with situations that are a lot more difficult to deal with and still be empathetic and acknowledge those—without going off the deep end and changing who you are.”

But to reiterate: This is NOT the time to engage in blatant self-promotion. “This is a time to connect with customers, to say you’re there for them – and you’re there for them responsibly – and that’s what customers will applaud you for,” says Larsen. “But if you try to make it about how great you are? They’ll see it as too opportunistic in a time when everyone is stressed and they will reject that.”

Communicating the worst type of news

Think about your employees first

Regardless of how well restaurants have managed thus far, the reality is that a closure – temporary or permanent – will be the necessary course of action for many venues coast-to-coast.

It’s a situation that can be tackled many ways, but you must communicate from the inside out: start with your employees and do what you can to help them manage this transition, then move on to your customers, supply chain and other partners.

“Your employees should be your most important ambassadors, but you also have a duty of care,” says Cobden. “This means that there are both business and moral reasons to take care of them first.”

Taking care of your employees first isn’t just the right move for moral reasons; there’s also tactical aspects to it as well. Murdoch notes that if you’re a restaurateur today, chances are you will be a restaurateur again, so you don’t want to have the reputation of mistreating employees hanging over your head.

You also want to ensure your brand has clear and concise messaging during a closure—which also starts with your employees. In the age of social media, news (real and fake) can spread quite quickly, as can people jumping to conclusions. Rusich notes that staff tend not to use scripts, so if you don’t inform them immediately, with a clear, fleshed-out plan, then misinformation can spread – and get out of control – very fast.

After your staff have been informed and accommodated, then you can move on to telling your customers, suppliers, affiliated organizations (such as Restaurants Canada) and even local government, all of which can also help with your transition.
Stay connected

Just because you’re closing down shop for a few months, that doesn’t mean you should disappear from customers’ lives. There are still a number of great ways to stay connected with your clients and the community.

From sharing recipes with your followers on social media and providing cooking advice to revealing fun facts about the restaurant or cool ingredients on your menu, this is a chance to educate customers in a way you couldn’t before.

Or perhaps you’re doing renovations, so share what you’re doing to improve as to build intrigue when guests can visit you again.

It’s also important to show customers that you are not giving up.

“People don’t want to see you give up on your business, or give up on that customer relation,” says Larsen. “They can accept restrictions being imposed on you, but they can’t accept you not trying to connect with them for the foreseeable future.”

Overall, this has been an extended period of negativity for the majority of the population. People need a little bit of hope and some feeling of normalcy, so don’t hesitate to provide communications that give them something to look forward to.

“Right now there’s a lack of aspirational messaging, and things to look forward to in general, so somewhat of a nostalgic tone can help,” says Rusich. “Maybe say ‘oh we’re excited when we can get back to this’ and post a photo of the restaurant being busy. Or a ‘did you know this is how we started?’ looking back at your place that has grown with its customers over the last so many years.”
Go beyond social media

While social media mainstays such as Twitter and Instagram have become the go-tos for communication, Cobden noted that the first wave saw a rise in short-form video messaging through apps such as YouTube and TikTok.

But social media isn’t the only way to communicate with the greater community. One of the things Larsen’s pub (and many other establishments) did was create sanitizer products, which gained recognition from third-party agencies.

“Those were people that would not have otherwise spoken about us,” says Larsen. “So think about advocacy beyond traditional circles.”

Industry coalitions are also worth referencing. Larsen recommends working with like-minded business groups, like Restaurants Canada, or reaching out to your local Chamber of Commerce to get your name out there through channels you previously may not have used much—or at all.

Rusich also adds that “old-school” methods, such as e-mail marketing (which allows one to communicate more detailed information) and sidewalk sandwich boards, allow you to connect with consumers on a much more human level (plus they’re very cost-efficient), while Murdoch suggests leveraging consumer and trade media.

“You often see members of the media, especially on social media, looking to speak with restaurants and restaurateurs about XYZ, so get your name out there,” says Murdoch. “And if you’re not comfortable speaking to the media, get some media training! You can get media training online, or agencies like ours can offer media training too to help you put yourself out there.”

For more valuable insights and advice, download Restaurants Canada’s “Crisis Preparedness and Business Continuity Guide” designed to help foodservice operators mitigate the business impacts of crises.

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