Pandemic Style PR: Flaunt Public Safety, Pay a Price

By on Monday, July 6, 2020

When the owner of the Grille at Rose Hill in Gaithersburg, Maryland took to Facebook to denounce a customer for complaining to the county health department that the restaurant’s staff were not wearing face masks (mandated in the county where the restaurant is located right now) and for placing customers too close together, the public response was swift.

NBC Washington did a story about the incident. The Washington, D.C. media market is the 8th largest media market in the United States, meaning this story was bound to get tons of attention. Add the fact that people have more free time on their hands than usual, and this story was destined to only get bigger.

The potential threat of this situation was completely ignored by the business owner. The restaurant owner refused to reveal his name in a phone interview with NBC Washington, and continued to insist his staff would not wear masks, even though doing so violates public health orders right now in the community the restaurant serves. It was not hard for the TV station to find a few upset customers to go on camera. He took down the original Facebook post (but not before the TV station had screenshot it) and instead told people to direct their comments about the restaurant temporarily closing for a few days to the County Executive and the Governor of Maryland. In 24 hours, more than 1,300 people have posted comments on the post, most of them excoriating the restaurant owner for his lack of commitment to supporting public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So what could the restaurant owner have done instead? Let’s assume the restaurant owner made the first Facebook post in a fit of anger, and then realized he needed to spin on a dime and change his messaging after NBC Washington called asking for an interview. If his reaction had been, crap, I’ve gotta turn this around or I could lose my business completely, what could he have done? The better strategy would have been:

  • Apologize when you need to and correct errors. The owner could have added a comment and edited the original Facebook post attacking the customer and posted instead an apology expressing remorse. He also could have offered the complaining customer a gift card/free meal, pledged to follow the public health rules by having his employees wear masks and seat patrons apart, and promised to comply with public health mandates.
  • Own it. The owner also could have used his or her real name in the social media response, and appeared in the TV interview – lending credibility. A remorseful, not angry tone, from a small business owner, could have gone a long way to diffusing this situation and averting the news and social media nuclear bomb it became.
  • Talk about (and demonstrate) your commitment to public health and safety. Realizing that this incident was now jeopardizing public trust in his brand to deliver good food and safe service, the owner could have talked about his restaurant’s commitment to health and safety. He could have posted videos on his Facebook page showing servers in masks and pledging to fix the problem. He could have talked about how tables will be spaced apart in the future, and shown how tables and seating are sanitized, how often staff wash their hands, etc. to restore public trust.

This story contrasts directly with another story in the Washington, D.C. market today about the Abyssinia Market & Coffeehouse, located in Alexandria, Virginia. The owner reopened her store this week and a customer came into the store who refused to wear a mask, which is required right now under local government mandates. She politely asked him to wear a mask, indicated she was trying to keep the neighborhood (and all of her customers) safe, and offered him a mask. She also had signage posted at the door asking customers to wear masks. He vandalized the store, spit at her, cursed at her, and called her “you people” several times. He was late arrested by the police and the restaurant owner intends to press charges.

This owner talked with the press using her real name and talked about her commitment to public safety and how this scary incident made her feel.  She comes across as credible, trustworthy and as someone we should all want opening a coffehouse in our community. The public is responding by donating money to a GoFundMe campaign to help the coffeehouse, and posting positive comments on the news story on the Alexandria Now website.

While both of these restaurants are in the news for very different reasons, they also illustrate one of the key rules of pandemic style public relations. Successful PR in this day and age must support public safety and health.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your projectreview our portfoliosign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven

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