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  • Writer's pictureBrian Conway

Breaking Down Buffalo Wild Wings' Crisis Response

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Buffalo Wild Wings - Naperville, IL
Pictured: Buffalo Wild Wings at 2555 W 75th St. in Naperville, IL (Courtesy: Google Earth)

Media headlines in the U.S. echoed one of the worst words any brand wants to be associated with: racism. This time, Buffalo Wild Wings is in the ring.

Having led Communications and PR for a casual dining chain, like a hawk I studied every move by Applebee's, and by Starbucks in the wake their respective racism crises in Philadelphia and Tempe, knowing that as crises go, it was only a matter of time before a major one befell our brand.

Fortunately, nothing major did, but let's dive in.

On Oct. 26, a large group of black guests were asked by two restaurant managers at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Naperville, Illinois to move to another section of the restaurant at the request of a guest that allegedly did not want to sit near black people. Nine days later on November 4, BWW issued this statement:

“We take this incident very seriously and after conducting a thorough, internal investigation have terminated the employees involved. Further, we have banned the customer who exhibited the inappropriate behavior from all Buffalo Wild Wings sports bars for life.
Buffalo Wild Wings values an inclusive environment and has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. We have been in direct communication with the families to offer our deepest apologies for any unacceptable behavior. In addition to a company-wide RESPECT program we launched this fall, Buffalo Wild Wings will conduct sensitivity training throughout our Chicagoland sports bars in response to this incident.”

BWW is checking the usual boxes here - acknowledging the incident using company language that's fairly standard, presenting the actions taken by the company to all offending individuals, and reinforcing the company's current and diversity standards, finishing with a forward-looking commitment.

Buffalo Wild Wings President Lyle Tick traveled to Naperville to meet with the affected guests, community leaders and officials, and the restaurant team. Following the meetings, BWW issued a second statement on Nov. 6 to communicate actions taken and reinforce the company's commitment to taking responsibility.

“Buffalo Wild Wings’ leadership does not condone in any way what happened at the company’s Naperville location, which is why swift action was taken once we had all the facts."

Speed should never trump accuracy.

The key here is "...once we had all the facts." Granted, crisis communications does require quick and decisive action while maintaining calm under pressure. That said, bringing everybody responsible to the table to gather critical facts as close to immediately as possible ensures minimal lag before the response phase begins.

Further, we will be conducting enhanced sensitivity training in our restaurants and working with city officials and community leaders to provide input and counsel. The families involved brought up several great recommendations and requests in their press conference yesterday, all of which we can positively address. While we are working now with civic and community organizations in Naperville and surrounding area, we also look forward to having a meaningful, open dialogue with the families when they are ready.”

It's clear that Tick's presence was as much damage control as responsible PR. If done correctly, in this case involving community leaders in dialogue, having your leadership onsite can have a very positive impact. On the flip side, staged photo appearances during a crisis will only cause deeper mistrust and brand damage, so be mindful about pulling this lever.

Rest assured that all eyes in the court of public opinion will remain on BWW through their sensitivity training, and we should expect even more scrutiny about the contents of that training. Much is left to do, but at this point, BWW is pulling many of the correct levers to restore brand trust and give the public reason to come back.

Is your brand truly ready to withstand a crisis? If not, let's talk today.

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