PR Basics: Don’t Come Across As ‘Against The People’

About six weeks ago, a Dunkin Donuts in my city found itself in a PR nightmare. An employee had quit her job, and shortly after, posted a series of photos on Facebook that she stated were taken inside of the location. She didn’t actually name the business, but people had their guesses and then the manager of the location commented on the thread — the manager basically outed the business by name (mistake number 1).

These photographs were alarming for any consumer. There were bugs and caked-on, gummy, nasty layers of — cream? sugar? — on the equipment that comes in contact with customers’ drinks.

Accompanying these photos were screenshots of text communications between what seemed to be the former employee and her manager. The employee was begging for more staff to be added, so there would be more time to properly clean.  The supposed manager was responding in a way that came across like, “Too bad. Get over it.”

Almost overnight, the patronage to that store plummeted. I know, because I live around the corner and drive past it multiple times per day, every day.

The Business Somehow Managed To Make It Worse

Then an article came out in our local newspaper about it, and the business took just about the worst stance they could take.

They demonized the employee, said she was lying, and made it clear they were going after her legally.

I don’t know if their claims are true, and I don’t know the ex-staffer personally. But I do know  (from how their drive-through and parking lot looks many weeks later) that they made a huge misstep.

You see, that former staffer, if she is telling the truth, did a HUGE service to the public. Much of the public seems to feel grateful to her for the tip-off, glad to know they aren’t drinking beverages that are at risk of being tainted, and some feel protective of her when they hear the Dunkin Donuts’ owner talking about going after her legally.

FB poll dunkin.2018-09-26 20_21_23.gif

A totally scientific poll. Super statistically significant. </sarcasm>

You Don’t Position Yourself As “Against The People”

Lots of people have worked for a place that they thought wasn’t doing right by its employees or its customers. When this employee came forward, she was instantly relatable to a lot of people. She was “one of them,” and she was perceived to be taking a stand in their best interest.

When the management of Dunkin Donuts responded aggressively toward the whistleblower, they positioned themselves as “against” her, and therefore, against the people. This part of the story was an unforced error, a result of hasty responses from people who aren’t familiar with PR messaging, and who felt threatened. It’s too bad for them, but it’s a lesson for the rest of us.

A Softer Approach That Reinforces Their “Clean” Reputation

While their business still struggles to recover, let’s imagine how differently it may have gone if they’d opted for a softer approach.

“We pride ourselves on impeccable cleanliness at our store. We welcome the opportunity to walk our customers through our store and its processes, and “double down” on our constant commitment to “clean.” Monday, Sept. 10th is Double Down Donut Day — post a photo on social media showing how clean our establishment is, and show us your post to receive two free donuts!” 

If they’d taken an approach more along these lines, they’d have:

  • Circumvented the terrible optics of aggressively fighting against someone who seems like a regular person looking out for the public.
  • Deprived her story of oxygen instead of feeding it and elevating it.
  • Recovered some of their traffic immediately.
  • Looked physically “busy” as a store, which conveys “social proof” that it’s okay to visit again.
  • Potentially surpassed the reach the original whistleblowing post received, by including the social media element of their promotion.

Personally, I’m glad to have heard about the purported problems at the store. We don’t go there anymore and I hope that the whistleblower (a) was telling the truth and (b) doesn’t receive legal repercussions for doing what she thought was right.

But I can’t help shaking my head at the Dunkin Donuts management for making the outcome as bad as it could possibly be from a PR perspective. If social media has taught us anything, it should be that you never go against the people.

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