Publicist Jennifer Baum got the call during the Passover seder: cockroaches were falling from the ceiling of a New York City restaurant she represents. In Baum’s hands, perhaps even the 10 plagues wouldn’t have gotten much play in the media. President of Bullfrog + Baum marketing agency, she quickly instructed the operator to comp meals as needed, to find the facts about what happened and to fix the problem. She crafted a statement and then monitored the situation over the next few days as the news died down and the restaurant recovered. 

Without an effective strategy, your hard-earned image can be fractured when a crisis strikes — whether it’s a cockroach infestation, a foodborne illness outbreak or a fire. Here’s how to keep your reputation intact and rebuild when necessary.

An ounce of prevention

Identify potential crises. Determine your vulnerabilities, and institute procedures to minimize risks. The Association’s ServSafe program offers training in key areas, including food safety, responsible alcohol service and allergen awareness. “Prevention is the best strategy,” says Melvin Kramer, president of Baltimore-based EHA Consulting Group, specializing in public health concerns. “You don’t want to have to rebuild your brand.”

Have a plan. Develop a crisis communications plan with sample media statements and contact lists. “You want to feel prepared and ready to go,” says Dan Barber, global food and agribusiness lead for public relations firm FleishmanHillard.

Damage control

Call in the professionals. If disaster strikes, consider contracting a communications professional to control your message and a consultant to navigate issues with regulatory agencies.

Get the facts. Stay calm and gather information about the incident. “Never rush into an interview,” Barber says.

Be transparent. When a fire temporarily shuttered a New York City restaurant, the management wanted to state the closing was due to “unfortunate circumstances.” Baum convinced them that it was better to reveal the reason than to let the public speculate.

Do the right thing. “Put public health and safety first,” she advises. “Protect your reputation by acting quickly with sincerity and responsibility.” Cooperate with authorities, like the health department, to resolve the issue. “The media loves conflict,” Barber says. “Fighting with authorities will only make the story more prominent.”

Fix the problem immediately. When a foodborne illness hit one of his restaurant clients, EHA’s Kramer had the restaurant sanitized overnight. The operation barely skipped a beat, opening the next day by bringing in employees from another unit whom hadn’t been exposed to the outbreak.

Communicate how you’ve resolved the situation. Regain the public’s trust by communicating how you fixed the problem, such as switching vendors or instituting new training efforts.

Craft a statement. Barber typically advises clients to prepare a concise statement for the media rather than grant an interview. “Interviews will take you away from your operations at a time when you need to be focused on fixing the situation at hand,” he says. Plus, during the heat of a crisis, it’s easy to get defensive or rattled during an interview.

Monitor social media. “Don’t get lost in the craziness of online exchanges,” Barber recommends. But if you see inaccuracies, refer people to your statement for the facts.

Get in front of the news. When a health-inspection paperwork issue delayed a restaurant’s opening, Baum contacted with the story.  “It’s so much better to get ahead of the media,” she says. “You can put the story out on your own terms.”

Rebuilding your brand

Up your image. After Minneapolis-based Granite City Food & Brewery received two citations for serving alcohol to underage guests, the restaurant ramped up its training in responsible alcohol service requiring all employees to be certified in ServSafe Alcohol.  Soon the restaurant made the news again: for winning the VIBE Vista Operator Award for Best Responsible Alcohol Service Program.

Call in the media. Invite a local reporter or food blogger to visit your restaurant to see that you’re back in business and better than ever, Barber advises.

Rely on your friends. Encourage your friends to spread the word about your business, Barber says. Be sure to contact any local celebrities you know. “Third-party credibility can go a long way to rebuilding any damage that’s been done to the brand,” he notes.

Offer an incentive. A freebie or discount can get customers back in the door, where they’ll see that your restaurant has its act together.

Give it time. “News tends to have a short shelf life,” Baum says. Give the public time to move on to the next story. “With the increase in blogs, the news moves so quickly. What was once front-page news, soon becomes tenth-page news due to the constantly changing and new content.” If serious reimaging is needed, enlist the help of a publicist and expect six to 12 months of work, she says.