Back to All

COVID-19 Crisis Communications FAQ: Restaurants Edition

17 March 2020

As the situation with COVID-19 evolves moment by moment across the US, we’re fielding questions and providing responses as quickly as possible. We know how difficult it is right now and we are here for you as a resource and sounding board. 

In this series, we’re rounding up the top queries we’ve received and are openly sharing the counsel from our Crisis Comms team. We’ll continue to update the list as new questions [and answers] flow in. 

Want to ask us something directly? Email it to us at TheHotline@bullfrogandbaum.com and we’ll work to get you a response ASAP.

Last updated: 11:58 AM on March 20, 2020; new questions in green

Q: Our local government just tightened restrictions/declared “stay-at-home”/declared “shelter-in-place”; however, restaurants can remain open for delivery only. How do I decide if I should remain open or close?

This decision is deeply personal for every business. We recommend first speaking with your financial advisors to decide whether staying open is vital to ensuring your long term viability.

If it is not, you need to now consider the impact remaining open will have on the community and your team. There is, right now, no right or wrong answer until the government mandates all restaurants shut down. Your PR team can aid you in proper messaging no matter what you ultimately decide.

Q: Our local government just tightened restrictions/declared “stay-at-home”/declared “shelter-in-place,” and we are planning to stay open for delivery only. How would you communicate this? Will we receive negative exposure?

All announcements need to be done with humility, transparency and conveying concern for your team and the public. You should be transparent as to how you came to this decision (consider explaining it is vital to ensure the viability of your business and that you want to be able to reopen so you staff can return to their jobs), while sharing any new precautions you are putting in place (i.e. going contactless delivery only; double bagging all orders; ensuring tight seals on all packages, etc.). We recommend communicating this in a clear, concise way and if possible, creating a video statement by a spokesperson to add an additional human element. Also add language to your third-party delivery pages (if space allows) and consider printing the details of your approach to safety on cards to place in all order.

In addition, if you are remaining open, support the industry as a whole by spreading the word about what the immediate needs of the industry are, the need for calls to representatives to figure out how to deliver an aid package to the industry, and the various relief projects. Align with an effort that you feel passionate about, see if there is any way to trigger donations (if applicable) and provide exposure for it via your social channels, email newsletter and even by including collateral in your takeout/to-go order. Every bit of education will help.

Q: Our local government just tightened restrictions/declared “stay-at-home”/declared “shelter-in-place,” and we are planning to stay open for delivery only. We are being asked by consumers what extra precautions we have in place to protect our staff and customers. What should we be doing and how do we communicate this?

First, you must decide what further actions you can enact that you aren’t already doing.  Will you: double bag orders and ensure tight seals on all outer packaging? Enforce contactless delivery? Glove all delivery staff? Once you have outlined these, ensure they are communicated via ALL communications that speak to delivery. 

If you are already executing every possible precaution, you should still communicate this in every communication that pushes delivery. If possible, also add language to your third-party delivery pages and print the details of your approach to safety on cards to place in all order.

Q: Our local government just tightened restrictions/declared “stay-at-home”/declared “shelter-in-place”; however, restaurants can remain open for delivery only. That said, we’ve decided to close. How do we communicate this?

Transparency and authenticity are key. Provide your loyal patrons, fans and followers with clear communication that shares that you have safely stayed open as long as possible to try to service the community, as well as providing jobs for as many staff as possible but now are making this decision to further protect your team and customers, to do your part to support all government efforts, and for the long term vitality of your business.

This information should be posted on all available communication channels (social media, website) and also sent out via your email database. If possible, add language to your third-party delivery sites as well.

Q: The government has mandated restaurants close or move to a delivery/takeout model. I’m going to remain open and adjust our model to delivery/takeout. What’s the best way to communicate this to the public?

A: Communicating swiftly with updated details is key. Send out a newsletter to your database with all updated information and share on all social media platforms. If you have the capabilities, create a pop-up for your website. Work with your PR team to draft these statements, alongside a press-facing version, so local outlets can spread the news as well. 

In all communication, it’s important that you create a personal connection and reiterate that remaining open is the right thing for your team and you are strictly following all best practices set forth by your DOH and the CDC, so you can continue serving your community safely during these challenging times.

Q: My local government just mandated all restaurants and bars close. What do I do?

A: First, connect internally with all stakeholders to outline a plan for your staff and vendors. Once you have a plan in place, connect with your HR and PR team to align on all internal and external messaging. It is important to communicate swiftly. Your PR team will develop transparent statements for your email database, social media, website, etc. This is not a time to immediately worry about press coverage, but rather a time to ensure your team and your loyal customers are informed.

If there is a specific period of time for the mandated closing and you anticipate being able to open, communicate that in a supportive and positive light. Be open to speaking to the press as well, sharing your experience but being overall supportive of working with authorities to help aid in ending the crisis.

Q: I need to close my restaurant, but I am confident I will reopen. How do I communicate this to ensure people know this is temporary?

A:  Be transparent and use language that looks to the future. Once the news has been communicated internally, work with your PR team to tackle the external.

Post the information on social media. Seed the details with friendly local press. And remember to always share that these decisions were not made lightly, but rather were done with staff and guests’ best interests in mind. 

The communications should also not end once the doors close. Devise an always-on email, social media + press campaign to ensure your restaurant remains top of mind. In addition, begin working on a reopening plan to ensure you have ample time to craft something that will be impactful.  

Q: Is there anything I can do while I’m closed to ensure consumers don’t forget about our restaurant/bar? How can we sustain interest or even generate a bit of revenue?

A: Yes! If you have the ability to support the community in any other way (e.g. donating meals, etc.) consider launching a program that addresses a need in your neighborhood. 

In addition, social media campaigns that hold true to your brand but don’t necessarily push products or visits to your establishment can be created. This is a chance to shine a light on interesting content and borrow communities by spurring conversation beyond COVID-19.

If you sell gift cards online, consider promotions with various incentives to encourage guests to plan future visits.

If your venue relies heavily on private events, consider an advance booking promotion; call your repeat clients first to drum up future bookings. 

Be a voice for your team and the industry as a whole. Offer to share your story with the press, including lessons learned, business pivots, and innovative tactics you might be considering for your recovery program. 

Q: We are going to have to close our doors permanently due to the government mandated shut down. What do we do? 

A:  Be transparent in all communications (both internal and external). Begin by sharing the news with your entire staff, sharing as many details as you are comfortable with releasing. Please note: any information shared with your staff runs the risk of being leaked to the press. Once all internal communications have been completed, share the news on your social media channels and with the press. If there is lead time and you will run another service, invite guests to order delivery (or come in) one last time. 

In all communications, no matter how detailed, we recommend being genuine, writing as a “human” and expressing emotions. Share how difficult of a decision it was. Express gratitude for your guests and staff. Thank those in the industry who have collaborated with you along the way. Communications that clearly come from an authentic place are always best received.

Q: An employee has tested positive. We’ve worked with all government agencies and the health department to ensure our restaurant is able to remain open. How can we communicate this without scaring away future customers?

A: Honest, clear communication is key. You should first alert all staff of the situation, provide them with an FAQ regarding the plan for moving forward, and train each as to how to deliver the information to guests they are interacting with at your restaurants. 

For external communication, we recommend creating as detailed an email as possible to your database, explaining the situation and very clearly outline how you are protecting from spreading the virus further. If possible, secure a quote from the Department of Health advising you have been cleared to stay open.  

The above should be syndicated to your social media channels and shared with all local press. Your PR team should field all follow-up questions from the press, providing access to a single spokesperson when the situation is warranted. 

Also, there may be legalities involved with this situation and so you should always include your legal team in approving any communication before it is distributed. 

Q: We want to support the community, but right now we don’t have the ability to really help financially. What else can we do?

A: Speak to your local leaders. Find out what really needs to be addressed in your immediate neighborhood and enlist your PR team to get creative in a supportive response. If there are community causes you deem worthy, but cannot support with financial backing, put what’s “free,” yet valuable, to work. Provide visibility to these causes via your social media channels or through a distribution to your email database. Or, if you’re able to, donate your time. There are a lot of services being offered such as dropping off food deliveries personally or shopping for an elderly guest who cannot do so themselves. 

Q: I need to close my restaurant, but it is unlikely we will reopen. I’m not ready to share that exact news though. How do you recommend I communicate this?

A: Many restaurants have been temporarily closing their doors during COVID-19, and so we are encouraging those who aren’t 100% positive that they will close, not to communicate a decision.  Instead, all communication should be strategically left open-ended. 

Messaging to employees, media, and consumers can express that you’ve made the decision to close your doors for the safety and general well-being of your staff and the public, and that you will be in touch with any updates as the situation evolves.

This gives you the flexibility to completely close or reopen when you are ready to make a concrete decision. 

Q: I need to close my restaurant and we will not be reopening. How do you recommend I communicate this?

A: Be transparent in all communications (both internal and external). Begin by sharing the news with your entire staff, sharing as many details as you are comfortable with releasing. Please note: any information shared with your staff runs the risk of being leaked to the press. 

Once all internal communications have been completed, share the news on your social media channels and with the press. If there is lead time and you will run another service, invite guests to order delivery (or come in) one last time. 

In all communications, no matter how detailed, we recommend being genuine, writing as a “human” and expressing emotions. Share how difficult of a decision it was. Express gratitude for your guests and staff. Thank those in the industry who have collaborated with you along the way. Communications that clearly come from an authentic place are always best received.

Q: I need to close a few restaurants within our group, but some will remain open. Will this reflect poorly on me? Do you anticipate reopening the restaurants we closed will be hard? 

A: The key here is to be transparent and factual, both internally and externally. Have a clear plan for the staff of the restaurants you will be closing before communicating to mitigate any fear. Explain the difficult decision and be clear on next steps. 

Externally, provide the overarching reason focused on employee and guest safety and health, and provide any other details you feel comfortable sharing. Ensure the message is consistent across email newsletters, social media, and press statements.

Reopening plans can begin to be put in place. Your PR team can brainstorm community initiatives that will help rally your neighborhood to support you once again, once your doors are open. 

Q: When should we start making these decisions (re: closing or remaining open)? I want to get ahead, but I also don’t want to close too soon.

A: Outlining a phased plan quickly is the surest way to ensure the development of a strong communications plan. We recommend speaking to your financial advisor, legal counsel and HR to run models and decide which paths are the most viable for your business.

Once you understand the feasible options, bring your PR team into the fold to begin the messaging process.

Q: Will people assume I am closing my restaurant due to health concerns? How honest should we be about the financial situation? 

A: No; many restaurants are closing due to the unpredictable nature of the evolving COVID-19 situation and consumers understand the economic impact this is having. 

You should be as honest as you are comfortable with about why you are closing and the financial situation. Transparency, communicated with authenticity, is typically met with support and respect. 

Q: What type of promotions do you advise we run right now that don’t look irresponsible?

A: Right now, the national conversation is very much aligned with supporting small and independent business owners in any way possible. 

If you will remain open, consider initiatives that can directly impact your community: discounts for healthcare workers, hospital staff, first responders; free lunches for children whose schools have closed, etc.

Promoting alternative revenue streams like delivery/takeout, any retail component, online merchandise sales, and encouraging people to buy gift cards that they can use at a later date are also other tasteful ways to continue to keep your restaurant top of mind and create revenue.

Q: Is it selfish/in bad taste to promote ourselves right now? 

A: No, but you must be sensitive and aware of the current climate. Encouraging gift cards sales for a visit at a later date demonstrates a clued-in brand. If you are open for delivery/takeout, or offering any other service, you should feel comfortable promoting yourselves. Sensitivity is always paramount in difficult times such as these. B+B can create messaging that spreads the word in an appropriate manner. 

Q: Can we send out emails to consumers about specials/timely items we are still running? 

A: While the situation is evolving hour by hour, any communication that encourages consumers to dine-in will appear irresponsible at this time. 

Keeping open communication between you and your guests/consumers during this evolving time is crucial; however, we recommend focusing this on delivery/takeout specials, charitable initiatives or the online purchase of gift cards and merchandise. 

In addition, we strongly advise against any form of promotion or communication that overtly ties to COVID-19 or mocks guidelines enacted by the government.  You should not, for example, create drink menus that promise a “healthy libation to combat coronavirus” or host a “lock in party.”

Q: We have other big announcements on the horizon, such as openings, chef moves, etc. Is there still an opportunity to communicate this? 

A: Critically assess your timeline. If you have something taking place or opening in the next 30 days, it might be prudent to discuss an adjustment. Beyond this, your PR team will be able to advise whether an announcement at this time is 100% necessary, or if there can be shifts in the plan. 

While we have seen press cover topics beyond COVID-19, short-lead outlets are currently dominated by the topic. 

However, long-lead outlets that work about six months out still may present opportunities to place stories. Once it is appropriate, we recommend your PR teams individually speak with key contacts at target publications to get a sense of where their focus is lying.  Everything should be communicated with care and you should not be blasting any press release or pitches out at this time. 

Q: What does a typical crisis response plan look like?  How do I go about putting one together?

A: A typical Crisis Response Plan looks at all areas of your business, identifies potential scenarios, and outlines a chain of decisions that would need to be made to forge a path ahead.

Your PR team has created the communications crisis response plans for likely COVID-19 scenarios and can share those as needed. 

Q: This may be too soon to ask, but what would a recovery plan/program for my business look like? Are there things I should start preparing for?

A: It is never too soon to discuss recovery. You should sit down with your PR team and key stakeholders and first outline what an ideal situation would look like and what budget you might be willing to invest. Once those details are aligned, planning can begin as to the core tactics that would be executed. Until a more concrete recovery date is insight, plans will need to remain fluid, but the outline and messaging can begin to be put in place now.