Making the headlines and going viral for all the wrong reasons is the stuff of business nightmares. Unfortunately, in the complex structure of a franchise there’s potentially a greater risk of it happening than in other businesses – it only takes one person to say or do the wrong thing for an entire brand to be tarnished, at least temporarily. In this age of social media, public outrage is visible, vocal and viral. More importantly, it has absolutely no respect of brand reputation or size, as recent high-profile cases have shown.
Two of America’s biggest food franchises have experienced crises of significant magnitude in the last few years. In 2015, Jared Fogle, the public face of Subway, pleaded guilty to child pornography charges and more recently Papa John’s founder John Schnatter stepped down from his role at the company following a well-publicised episode concerning the use of racist language. These are far from the only reputational hits to have happened in the industry – and at best those scandals only resulted in lost leads and customers. So what can you do as a franchisor if a crisis befalls your brand?
Take charge, don’t duck for cover
Crisis management professionals all agree the most important thing you can do is to take responsibility for the situation. If a bad story breaks, then sticking your head in the sand is going to make things worse. Covering up, staying silent or avoiding what’s happened will only exacerbate things. The story will run and run through other people’s voices and commentaries – regardless of whether they’re fair or accurate – and outrage will build.
Communication is key. Put out a press release, post a considered statement on social media. However you do it just ensure you’re responsive and proactive. Accept what’s happened and apologise quickly and sincerely – don’t argue publicly and don’t delay while the story rumbles on. Get ahead of things as best you can and take the hits that are coming, people will respect your brand more than if you try to shy away from things. Subway was praised for swiftly removing everything to do with Fogle from its business – no small matter after 15 years as its spokesperson – but then criticised for only communicating through a few short tweets rather than taking responsibility and engaging with the public.
And remember to be human. Saying you’re ‘reviewing your policies’ or ‘looking into it’ are the actions of a corporate entity that people can’t relate to. ‘No comment’ is going to fan the flames like a giant wind tunnel. Apologise first and then discuss what actions you’re taking so that people can see that you genuinely care and are trying to ensure there’s no repeat of the situation. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes: how will your actions and words appear to them? This isn’t a time for spin, it’s a time for an honest human response.
Have a strategy
With all that said, don’t have every manager or franchisee immediately taking to social media. Yes, you need to act quickly – but not thoughtlessly or haphazardly. Your brand’s future could be at stake, so you need the most senior people in the business taking control of the situation and only them. One person should have overall control of the communications strategy. A centralised voice is essential to manage the situation as best as possible without further stoking the fire. Conflicting messages could make the business appear inept at best, so have a media policy in place and be clear about who can speak to the press and who should direct them elsewhere.
Ideally, you should have a crisis strategy in place before one hits, so when things start moving at a hundred miles an hour – and they will – rather than panic, there’s a documented process to follow regarding who’s responsible for what. Even if you’re personally going to be responsible for just about everything, thinking about worst-case scenarios from an advanced, detached place with a cool head is going to be better than reacting in a frenzy.
Part of that strategy should be to monitor everything you can. Depending on the scale of the crisis, social media is likely to be ablaze, whether you’re on it or not. Understand what’s being said and respond appropriately. One of the best-handled PR crises I’ve seen in franchising involved the owners of a small network responding personally to every social media comment they received after the actions of a franchisee on video went viral for all the wrong reasons. It took untold amounts of time, stress and heartache but they diffused an awful situation and actually gained new customers because they showed how much they care. Their franchise is still thriving as a result.
Perhaps the best advice if you find yourself dealing with a public-facing calamity is to engage a crisis management professional as quickly as you can. They’re experienced, knowledgeable and will provide a calming influence in the most torrid of situations. PR can be an exciting and dynamic aspect of building your reputation – it’s a specialist field when it comes to protecting it.