How to Handle a Flash Crisis? Or…Forming a Crisis Response Strategy
By Adele R. Cehrs

Imagine this… your restaurant receives a bad health grade inspection and people start to blog about it. A tweet by a bartender who didn’t know what was appropriate ‘goes rogue’. An exchange between a new manager and a disgruntled patron gets posted all over Yelp. Or worse. Experience any one of these scenarios and you could have a flash crisis™ on your hands. Fortunately, knowing how to respond to these issues can be the difference between a public relations opportunity and business loss.

A flash crisis™ happens when a negative post, comment or blog goes viral and the winds of chatter whip it into a firestorm. With more than 3.5 billion pieces of content shared each week on Facebook, 234 million websites, and 126 million bloggers blogging, it makes tracking online conversations tricky.

According to a recent study by PR Week, only 9% of staff monitoring social media has any previous experience in communications. This leaves many businesses vulnerable to flash crisis™ situations they may not be prepared to handle.

Well in advance of any one of these situations, it is advisable that restaurateurs create a crisis action team and process for responding. The process begins with fact finding, identifying whether the issue is in fact a crisis and assembling the appropriate stakeholders to discuss how to respond or not respond.

DON’T JUST STICK YOUR HEAD IN THE SAND – Monitor social media regularly by setting up Google Alerts, Yelp and Trip Advisor. Experts recommend monitoring each channel at least three times a day, so understand the man hours required to do social media well. You must know what people are saying about the establishment and respond when necessary.

CREATE A COMMAND CENTRAL – Just like you plan for a busy Saturday night in the kitchen or bar, planning for a crisis situation requires an organized approach. Gather the appropriate parties like PR/marketing, management, and (if necessary) legal to decide on a response strategy. Depending on the magnitude of the issues, you may want to create a place on the company’s website or blog to address issues as quickly as possible via a Q&A document. Also consider providing appropriate information via the company’s Facebook Twitter, LinkedIn accounts etc.

SET STANDARDS – Many times crisis situations happen because management is hoping for the best and when the worst happens they have no idea how to deal with it. If this sounds familiar, setting social media policies and standards is an important step for your organization. Have a policy on what is appropriate including representing the brand on a personal profile to responding to negative reviews. Without knowing what is accepted practice, staff will do what is personally right for them, not the brand. The good news is many top brands have social media policies you can review and tailor to meet your needs.

TO RESPOND OR NOT TO RESPOND – Not only must there be a place where patrons can ask questions and get answers about their concerns, but the management team should determine which questions, complaints or issues can and will get answered. Determine these responses ahead of time without the emotion of being “under attack” including what types of issues or comments you’ll respond to such as misinformation, distorted facts, or when you know you were wrong and the customer was right. Don’t let a small issue snowball into an avalanche. Look at the negative conversations on Yelp, Facebook, or blogs to see what people are really thinking, evaluate the level of the problem, then respond accordingly.

BE TRANSPARENT, BUT DON’T BE THE INVISIBLE MAN – Crisis communications is a time where leadership and a straightforward approach are paramount. If you’ve decided a response is necessary, use positive language. Do not repeat negative words or phrases and update the response regularly – use language that pushes the conversation in a different direction instead of focusing on the negative. Say something. Don’t let the social media audience rule the conversation. If needed, be transparent about not being able to answer at the time of the crisis and ensure key stakeholders that more information will be provided at a later time.

USE OF TRADITIONAL MEDIA – Don’t forget that traditional media outlets (television/radio/newspapers) will tune into an establishment’s social media presence as soon as a crisis breaks to get a sense of what others are feeling at the moment. And, they can and will use that information in a story or as your comment on the incident. Get back to the basics – social media isn’t just another tool – it is an extension of a brand’s story.
Be sure you are the one telling it.

The bottom line is to use a commonsense approach to responding to social media issues. Use the same customer service principles with online customers as patrons in your establishment and every guest encounter becomes a positive public relations opportunity.

Adele R. Cehrs is president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Epic PR Group, which specializes in crisis communications. For more information visit or via email: