Going Viral, Crisis Comms and THAT Blog Post

Today my Facebook feed came alive with a blog post by a local writer that went viral VERY quickly. I’m not going to link to the article for obvious reasons but I’m sure most of you locals will catch my drift… Why did it gain traction? Because it was highlighting the “Scores on the Doors” of well-known local eateries, sometimes construed by the public to equal “hygiene ratings” (I don’t think it does, but if you want to know more about how they’re scored you’ll have to read through the red tape yourself here).

Anywho, it wouldn’t matter to me because I work in PR, so I take EVERYTHING I read with a pinch of salt. I know how these things can be cherry-picked, how the positive can be spun and the negative hidden. I also know about sensationalism and how it’s a fine tightrope we tread between catching people’s interest with an image or headline and ensuring we are being truthful and transparent.

I watched in earnest as the situation panned out over the course of the day. In an industry that is usually hoping for their material to “go viral” and at the same time panic-stricken at the thought of a reputational crisis, it’s like having a real-life practice run - how would I react? What would I say? When? To whom?

Of course that’s hard enough for me to decide when I’m not under pressure, I’m trained and (relatively) experienced. The local business in question may well have the PR skills (again, I don’t know) but I’m pretty sure they don’t have the resources of a dedicated communications support team. To say that I was impressed then with the speed with which they addressed the issue, via the same channels it had arisen (social media), would be an understatement.

As a case study, I thought I’d look at where I felt their strengths and weakness lie and what overall effect the incident, and their response, might have on their reputation, if any.

What they did well:
The restaurant in question responded promptly to the issue (by lunchtime in fact) and they were open and honest. The statement went into great detail about exactly why they had scored as they did.

They also focused people’s minds on the context which was missing from the original article - what the scores actually mean, how they are calculated, and a stark reminder that the reality was they hadn’t scored badly, in the grand scheme of things.

They also, importantly, instilled confidence in their audience by explicitly stating what they were doing to improve in each area, in a Plain English, non-corporate manner.

This all left people feeling such empathy for the company that their response to the critique went viral too! That’s not something many companies in a PR crisis can claim to achieve.

What didn’t work so well:
I don’t want to be a killjoy, of course there were things that could be improved on but, in fairness, not an awful lot. A few respondents felt that they could have accepted their score which possibly wasn’t as obvious from a reactionary statement. And to end their note referencing legal action, although not unfounded, caused a few to feel they were being too defensive. This stance can often detract from the honesty and transparency that has preceded it. However these responses were few in comparison to the overwhelming support shown for the company.

Overall, it seems that most people recognise that a reputation is built on what you do, not what you say (or indeed, what anyone else might say about you) and so, for an establishment that has already amassed a substantial fan base, they will probably weather the storm well. In fact, their Facebook page has now reached many more people than it had yesterday.

It begs the age-old question that some commenters raised; is all publicity good publicity? I had come across the restaurant before in my news feed, although I haven’t tried it because I’m rarely in Belfast. The people I know were really impressed. In that sense, the viral blog post didn’t do anything to change my existing thoughts on the business. What did change my thoughts was their crisis comms response to the incident - I was impressed. Given the circumstances, they did pretty well in my book. I’d love to have a chat with them about it all - over one of their dishes!

If I wore a hat, I’d tip it to them.