The response by Bern’s Steakhouse spokespersons in a story in the Tampa Bay Times this morning that examined the gap between truth and reality in claims that Bern’s serves primarily organic and local-farm-grown vegetables is a classic example of how a defective crisis communications strategy can damage an iconic, worldwide brand.
It is instructive to review the article at www.tampabay.com/features/food by Food Critic Laura Reiley (firstname.lastname@example.org). Our analysis of the story concludes that Laura provided a well-researched and reported analysis of an issue appropriate for public discussion. Our analysis also concludes the management at Bern’s is not receiving the level of professional crisis communications counsel required to defend and support such a revered and valuable brand. Thus, it is likely the story will continue to reverberate in the culinary world, and more food and dining critics unfortunately will begin to take their own shots at Bern’s.
For executives interested in how to avoid such negative outcomes in a crisis, here is a very basic rule that actually can enhance the integrity of your organization and strengthen your brand. It’s part of the crisis risk analysis all organizations should have and regularly exercise. It requires that you must have a crisis management team and top crisis communications counsel in place, and you must be proactive.
When you are contemplating significant changes in procedures, processes, organization, product development, services or other areas of operation, always ask yourself what the impact will be on your stakeholders, customers, clients employees and key publics when that information gets out. It always will. Analyze those potential effects and develop proactive communications strategies and tactics to address those audiences’ collective and individual concerns.
The foundations of that strategy? Truth. Openness. Transparency. Honesty. Action.
Following that rule, Bern’s would have actually enhanced the level of integrity it enjoys with its key publics and strengthened its brand if it had simply used menu inserts to advise diners of the shortage of organic vegetables, and retrained its servers. People understand economic and operational realities, and they can embrace change. The public appreciates and respects the truth, candor and honesty, even if it is bad news. People will not tolerate, God forbid, those fatal words, “no comment.”
Imagine how different Laura’s story would have been if Bern’s had instituted the menu-card informational campaign a year or more ago. And, if management had provided web postings and issued a news release announcing the restaurant’s acceptance of operational and economic reality as a reason for changing a longstanding policy of providing organics, would there even have been a story? Yes, but it certainly would not have been today’s.