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When you've absolutely, positively blown it.

Fall 2008

We’ve all been there. It’s that sickening moment when you sit back, take a look at your situation and go “Oh, crud.” What do you do when you’ve realized you’ve just sunk into a communications mineshaft?

Consider the case of (names needed here.) They run a reasonably high-end restaurant called “Nathaniel’s” in the small community of Owen Sound, Ontario. One of their waitresses, Stacy Fearnall, participated in a cancer fundraiser organized by the local police department, which involved shaving her head in exchange for pledges.

When Fearnall arrived for work with newly shorn hair, (name) told her to take the summer off until her hair grew back. Understandably, once the local media discovered this, the story spread like proverbial wildfire.

There was nationwide media uproar, and none of it was positive. The public was outraged. Several Facebook groups sprang up overnight calling on consumers to boycott Nathaniel’s. Small business owners came forward in the media, publicly offering Fearnall employment to cover her loss of waitressing income. Newspapers and television stations covered the story from coast to coast. It made the front page of Yahoo and Google News. It came to the point where Fearnall herself was begging people to simply leave her alone.

How did Nathaniel’s handle this? To be blunt – they didn’t. Owners posted a sign on the door simply saying “Closed.” This is what I call “turtling.” They hid and hoped the problem would go away. In the meantime, business obviously plummeted. The restaurant was closed for a week, hoping everyone would stop camping out front with television cameras. Several months after the fact, Nathaniel’s is open but running reduced hours, due, presumably, to lower revenues.

How SHOULD Nathaniel’s have handled this? Well, obviously, there’s the common sense approach. As a rule, it’s never a good idea to fire employees for cancer fundraising. This is especially so when the fundraiser in question is organized by your local police department. High-end grooming standards notwithstanding, I can come up with at least a dozen creative ways of saying “Hi consumers – one of our waitresses is bald. We’re proud of her, and we’re committed to helping her raise money for cancer research.”

Even if Nathaniel’s had a legitimate reason to dismiss Fearnall, they committed a cardinal sin by not responding to the accusation. If I were the owner of Nathaniel’s, and had made the decision that Fearnall had to leave, I would recognize the increased media presence as a wonderful opportunity to extend my brand.

A prepared statement of: “Nathaniel’s is a proud member of the community and would like to congratulate “Cops for Cancer” for a successful fundraising event. Some of you may have heard about the dismissal of one of our employees. We would like to reassure you that this dismissal was for private, legitimate reasons, and in no way reflects our commitment to either fine dining or community fundraising. “

Does the problem go away here? Not entirely – but the vitriolic hate certainly drops several degrees.

Now the tricky part – what if Nathaniel’s opens the window, see’s a sea of television cameras and has an “Aha!” moment? What if they realize, “Uh oh – have we really blown this? We had no real reason to fire her, and we’re lucky she hasn’t sued us yet.”

These moments of self-realization are sickening but serve a useful and legitimate purpose. And if you play your cards right, swallow your pride and do what’s right, you’ll have a far better opportunity to salvage your brand.

The smart play here would be to call a news conference with only one key message: “We are sorry.”

To expand: “Nathaniel’s restaurant is proud of our service to the community, and of the relationship we have between our staff and our employees. This is why we are sorry, and deeply embarrassed about a rash decision we made earlier this week. We have asked Ms Fearnall to return to work anytime she chooses. We will compensate her for the wages lost in the meantime. We will be preparing this information card for our diners which describes the commitment Ms Fearnall has made for cancer research. We will be accepting voluntary contributions from our diners for the next three months for cancer reseach, and as a token of our deep regret, Nathaniel’s will gladly match each dollar donated. To the Cops for Cancer and to Ms Fearnall we have one message – we are deeply sorry. Please forgive us. It will never happen again.”

Ideally, have Ms Fearnall and a representative of the Cops for Cancer fundraising team present to accept your apology.

You’re going to make front page news. You’re going to take a short term hit. But – you will survive to fight another day. It remains to be seen whether or not Nathaniel’s, with their ‘duck and cover’ strategy, will survive or not.

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