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Negative social media posts, damaging headlines, a trending story on BBC News and criticism from trade union leaders – it has been a weekend to forget for one restaurant chain.
Wahaca has found itself in the firing line for its policy on what happens when customers leave without paying their bill.
The Mexican chain's problems began when a diner tweeted that she was eating in its Kentish Town branch when she witnessed an eat-and-run incident.
She posted that the waiter had informed her he would have to cover the cost of the bill.
That tweet has been retweeted more than 3,000 times, attracted more than 700 comments and received more than 8,000 likes.
Hi @wahaca just eaten in your Kentish Town restaurant for the last time.— Sarah Hayward (@Sarah_Hayward) June 15, 2019
Ppl next to us left without paying and their server is made to foot the bill from his wages. Apparently company policy. Utterly shameful employment practice.
Food's great, company is crap.@thomasinamiers
As is so often the way, the story moved from there to mainstream media. Here are a few headlines.
Wahaca waiter ‘forced to foot bill after customers do runner’ from restaurant Daily Mirror
Wahaca restaurant criticised after waiter forced to foot bill for customers who did not pay, citing ‘company policy’ i Newspaper
The story was also covered by BBC News where it was one of the most read stories, while the union Unite described the incident as ‘outrageous’.
So how did Wahacca respond?
It took the chain the best part of 12 hours to respond to the story on social media.
With a response time like that it is easy to understand how the story gained momentum.
Yes, it is a relatively small chain – 25 branches across the UK – and the original post was tweeted after 8pm on a Saturday.
But in an age where few things travel as fast as public outrage on social media, brands need to constantly be aware of what is being said about them online and be in a position to respond quickly.
It may well be the case that you don’t have all the information available immediately, but you still need to respond quickly, acknowledge what has happened, and promise to come back when you have more information.
The void in this story was filled by other people from the industry making it clear that what was being reported here was not standard practice across the sector.
No it is not standard across the industry - it would be classed as an “illegal deduction” if the case were referred to an employment tribunal.— Brian Clivaz (@BrianClivaz) June 16, 2019
There is often a temptation during a crisis media management incident to try to respond to everyone who raises a concern and voices an opinion.
This is undoubtedly well-intentioned; it regularly results in brands issuing the same response repeatedly as Wahaca did here.
It used this message to reply to everyone:
“We can assure you that this is not our standard policy, only in cases of total negligence will a (SIC) individual be held accountable, which is very rare. This will not be deducted from the waiter & we will be making sure we have clarity on our policy internally”
We can assure you that this is not our standard policy, only in cases of total negligence will a individual be held accountable, which is very rare. This will not be deducted from the waiter & we will be making sure we have clarity on our policy internally— wahaca (@wahaca) June 16, 2019
The brand later defended this approach saying it was ‘just trying to get the right info out effectively’, but this copy and paste, robo tweeting does not suggest a brand really cares what customers and potential customers are saying.
If you really do want to try to respond to everyone, social media managers need to be empowered to produce different variations of the message and put it into their own words. That may sound risky, but customers prefer the human approach and it can help turn a negative story into something more positive.
The boss doesn’t always need to lead an organisation’s response when it is in the firing line.
But using personal social media accounts to share timely updates, insights, and their own thoughts on the situation can work well, showing they are on top of the issue and that they are actively involved in trying to resolve the situation.
However, when co-founder Thomasina Miers got involved in this story, she did not really strike the right tone.
Her tweets had a defensive theme - which rarely works in this type of scenario - and seemed determined to get involved in an argument with the person who originally posted her concerns on social media.
Please highlight “apparently” more next time and maybe ask before presuming the worst...???!— thomasinamiers (@thomasinamiers) June 16, 2019
It is a crazy world where one is hung before even being asked a question...it really saddens me that people are so quick to presume the worst...— thomasinamiers (@thomasinamiers) June 16, 2019
She may well have been better served by not getting directly involved or should have looked to take the conversation offline.
But it wasn’t all bad. When Wahaca did eventually respond, it made it clear that the waiter involved in this story would not have the money deducted from his wages.
And there was some action, with a vow to review the policy and ensure there was ‘clarity’. Really, they should have made more of this part, making it clear what steps they had taken to ensure this type of incident would not happen again.
But it did help to change the tone of subsequent headlines:
Wahaca waiter won’t foot bill after customers dine and dash Sky News
Wahaca changes eat-and-run policy after waiter asked to pay part of bill BBC News
Negative social media posts don't have to be a recipe for disaster. Take a look at our recent blog 8 tips for handling a social media crisis for more tips on advice to help you avoid the heat Wahaca has been experiencing.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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