Crisis ready

Quick responses and a plan are vital in crisis situations.

Quick responses and a plan are vital in crisis situations.

While the chance is tiny that your restaurant could be a potential terrorist target, what would you do when your restaurant is actually hit by a similar crisis? Paul Christopher talks to two experts in crisis management to help you establish a plan.

n 4 May this year, sensational media reports surfaced that the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) warned that Australian restaurants and hotels were “potential primary targets” for terrorists.

The hypothetical situation

Albert Lower (a fictional restaurateur) runs a successful restaurant in a shopping arcade, about a block away from the offices of a major newspaper. This lunchtime, about 1.30 pm, he hears a customer cough loudly, then groan. When he looks over, that customer is holding his stomach like he’s in pain. Then, three tables away, another customer collapses out of her chair.

His staff runs over to help them. Both customers are running high temperatures, yet they’re both shivering. The female customer is delirious, and doesn’t seem to know where she is. The male customer is coughing uncontrollably, and has lost control of his bodily functions.

Lower instructs a staff member to call triple 0. As he does, another customer complains loudly of a stinging headache. Diners start to panic. Someone says they can smell gas. Someone else says “wasn’t there a terrorist warning?”, and suddenly half the restaurant is headed for the door.

What does Lower do?

We put this hypothetical situation to two experts in crisis management—David Hawkins, managing director of Socom in Melbourne, and Brian Mahoney, director of FCR in Sydney. Hawkins has more than 15 years experience in crisis management, has presented to the United Nations and won international recognition for his work with Masterfoods during their extortion crisis in July last year. Mahoney and FCR’s crisis management programs have won industry awards in 2002, 2003 and 2004. His experience ranges from employee and customer fatalities, regulatory failure product withdrawals, regulatory issues and fraud to the Tampa refugee crisis and Sydney Harbour oil spill.

Their advice can help you to begin to establish a plan if a similar crisis happens to you. Of course, the chances that such a thing will happen are very small—but if it does, this knowledge may mean the difference between keeping your business and losing it.

The first 24 hours

Our fictional restaurateur’s first response may be to call his lawyer to check where he stands on liability. Both Hawkins and Mahoney say this would be a bad move.

“When customers start collapsing, your first calls should be to the police and the emergency services,” says Hawkins. “He needs to clear the restaurant and close it. He would probably notify centre management at the shopping centre.” He adds that it is generally better to be proactive than reactive with contacting health authorities.

“They’ll have a lot of people wanting information and people to deal with,” says Mahoney. “Government agencies, unions, workers’ families, local council, patrons and diners themselves, and your workers. Also, health authorities will get involved. All these people want information.”

So if the legal advice is ‘say nothing, admit no liability’, the restaurateur will be left with an information vacuum. And nature abhors a vacuum. “If you don’t make information available, others will, and they may not have all the facts,” says Mahoney.

That’s why Mahoney advises getting your PR advisor involved as soon as possible. “At the same time the restaurateur should be advising staff that he is the spokesperson and no-one else,” he adds. “He should make sure staff direct any media calls to him. This is to make sure there is one informed source for all information.”

And make no mistake: the media will be there. Whether they heard about it from patrons, staff, or whether journalists were there at the time, the suggestion of a terrorist-related incident will bring them out in force. That means that, whether he likes it or not, the restaurateur is now in a cycle of crisis management and recovery.

Once he is sure that everyone is safe and the affected patrons are on their way to hospital, says Mahoney, he has to manage the crisis to restrict damage to the reputation of the business.

“There will be an opportunity to speak to the media, and you should communicate three clear messages,” says Hawkins. “Firstly, tell people the facts of what happened. Secondly, make sure the media know that customer safety was your number one concern and remains your number one concern. And thirdly, we don’t know what caused the problem, but based on the symptoms we don’t believe it’s a food safety issue.”

Hawkins adds that in terms of liability, you’ve got nothing to lose by going through these three points.

“You have to set your objectives,” says Mahoney. “What are you trying to achieve? You have to be absolutely sure you’re not trying to avoid liability or hiding from the truth. In following up you’ve got to communicate with your workers, and keep the family of those affected informed.” He adds that you should get as many facts as possible and prepare a statement of the facts. “Keep it short. In this case, no-one has died, they’ve been stricken with an unknown problem.”

Mahoney says the media wants to talk to anyone they can get hold of in the restaurant. “It’s hard to stop that, so you’ve got to follow up and offer your comments in the situation and hopefully you’re more informed. This is where your communications advisor will know who to talk to and what to say.” He adds that you should be prioritising your message in terms of mass media. “It is likely that TV will influence local area people more than the local paper. This doesn’t mean you don’t take the call from the local paper. But in the first 24 hours, the message will spread most quickly in the mass media.”

The next two days

Over the coming days, Lower stays in touch with the families of those patrons in hospital, and also fields regular calls from radio, newspapers and television. The story receives wide publicity, sometimes invoking speculation of the incident being terrorist-related.

“Once the immediate danger has passed, he should be asking himself, ‘when can I open again’?” says Hawkins.

“The restaurant must only open when it’s safe to do so. He should also contact the people who are ill, as a courtesy. If the media believes he’s good talent, one thing that may happen is they will continue to seek him out for comment. It’s good for him if he can say he has been in contact with the customers, and ‘Bill’s okay, but Mary’s still a bit crook’. That starts to build a profile of the type of restaurant this is—clean, friendly and so on. So while he’s managing the crisis, he’s also finding ways to minimise the financial impact of the crisis.”

Although it’s intrusive having media outlets continuing to hound you, Mahoney points out that you should do your best to talk to them. “The media would regard something like this as a running story,” he says. “It wouldn’t be over in one edition or bulletin. They would report on it again when they know exactly what happened to those people. That means you do have a second chance to talk to them and communicate all the correct facts. If they’re [the media] uninformed, and there are other factors the public should know, you’ve got to go to all these people with the real information.”

It’s important, at this stage, to not speculate about anything—just present all the facts as you know them. “Anything you say to the media can be quoted,” says Mahoney. “Usually people go wrong by not saying anything or by guessing instead of sticking to the facts, so then they go into things they aren’t sure about which shoots their credibility.”

When the patrons present their variety of symptoms at the hospital, staff run tests to determine the cause. Food poisoning is ruled out immediately, as the symptoms are too diverse. Bloods are taken for testing. An initial diagnosis is possible legionnaire’s disease, which is suggested by the victims’ coughing. This is good and bad news: it rules out terrorism, but presents a brand-new problem.

“You also need to take your staff into consideration,” says Hawkins. “Legionella can lay dormant [for between two and ten days], so some staff may have contracted it. He should provide information to his staff. Once he finds out what it is, he should collect information from health authorities and provide that information to his staff as well. He may call all the staff together and explain that everything’s okay.”

At some point the restaurateur is going to know it’s safe to open again. “Once you have done that it’s useful to draw the media’s attention to the fact that you’ve opened again,” says Hawkins. “If you haven’t got PR representation before now, it’s a good idea to get it. The questions you’ll be asked is how do you guarantee this won’t happen again, and you should take this opportunity to reiterate that you’re not going to put anyone’s safety at risk.”

“The moment you know it’s Legionella and you’ve found the source, the most important thing is to let people know what’s being done,” says Mahoney. “Replace the faulty system. You may well close the restaurant while that’s being done, to protect diners and to signal to diners you take this seriously. You’d get specialists in to make sure the system is completely safe before you let people back in.”


“From the moment people are no longer in danger then you should turn your attention to the recovery,” says Hawkins. “He may need to increase advertising to regain market share. If it’s a local restaurant he’s not going to have a budget for a broad communications campaign. He might take some ads out in the local paper reiterating the message that they’re safe to open.”

“You then have to do things like a longer goodwill campaign to diners to win back patronage,” says Mahoney. “It may well be something like offering people discounts, maybe getting local celebrities back to the restaurant. It might be bringing people to dine there who have a connection to health or to the local community such as the mayor and the council—maybe have them inspect the new facilities. You will need to put in place a public system where air conditioning is inspected twice as frequently as needs be.”

Mahoney points out that there’s a good chance the national media will have forgotten about you by this stage, so it’s best to concentrate your efforts on local-level media, where most of your customers will come from, in any case.

“When all the sick people are well, have a party or some kind of function and invite them and their families and the press,” says Hawkins. “You’d benefit from TV images of their families eating at your restaurant again. You don’t have control over whether the cameras will come back, but get advice from your PR agency as to when to throw the party. You’ll have a greater chance of getting coverage if you time it for a slow news day, and if you get some local celebrities along.”

In general, both Hawkins and Mahoney stress that the two things people do wrong in a crisis situation is not making themselves available and not taking responsibility for the safety of their customers—even if the crisis was out of their control. “Where crisis management goes wrong is where people shift the blame,” says Hawkins. “We’re prepared to forgive people if they show genuine remorse.”

Most important, says Mahoney, is good preparation and being honest and straightforward. Even though you might be concerned about damage to your reputation, it’s the reputation of your business you should think about. “It’s the business’ reputation that’s known, and it’s the business the public associate with,” he says. “It’s the business’ reputation that gets damaged. The whole intent of crisis management is so you can restrict damage to the reputation of the business, because your reputation is your most valuable asset.

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