Paging Boston Market: When a Company Goes MIA During a Crisis

On Thanksgiving eve, those spending even a moment on social media saw a PR crisis unfold in real time. Boston Market, which in the days before was doing interviews touting a 172 percent spike in sales ahead of the holiday, was falling apart.

Across the country customers arrived at restaurant locations to pick up their preordered (and prepaid) Thanksgiving meals.  Many said they waited 2 to 3 hours. At best, they got their order, after the long wait. At worst, they left empty-handed. Some customers said they received a partial meal with missing items their location no longer had in inventory. Others said they were provided frozen meals to cook at home.

It is hard to know exactly where things went wrong–in large part because Boston Market is MIA. It appeared that inventory management and store operational planning were not prepared. Local restaurants were unable to deliver on corporate's marketing promises.

Where Are You?

Equally troubling is the lack of response from Boston Market. Even as complaints were piling up, and news outlets were reporting on customer issues and frustrations, Boston Market proceeded with a detailed Thanksgiving social media campaign. This included Black Friday promotions and holiday well-wishes to customers.

Need we describe how tone-deaf 'Happy Thanksgiving' sounds when your promised holiday meal is incomplete or undelivered?

Not a surprise then that nearly every cheery Boston Market post unleashed a new tirade of customer complaints.

Gotta love consistency, though. Even as the crisis was escalating, Boston Market’s PR and social media team proceeded with posts, undeterred. And at every turn, and with each post, there were more negative comments from customers. In addition, there were questions about why the company failed to respond.

This (lack of) response is puzzling. Why would such a well-known brand be so tone-deaf? Why didn’t Boston Market, at least, pause its proactive holiday posting while it worked through the crisis? How and why did the company fail to respond to media requests for comment? Why did it not quickly engage on social media and begin to address the firestorm? Where were its executives and PR leaders? Most important, why is Boston Market still posting?

There are Lessons

1. In a crisis, the first hours are critical. Getting a handle on a crisis before it explodes is key. Brands must respond swiftly to minimize the possibility that a crisis will expand, take on a life of its own and spiral out of control.

2. Proper management of social media is another lesson. Boston Market platforms have more than a quarter-million followers. Many were ignored when they reached out to the company via social seeking answers. When a brand is in a crisis, pausing scheduled social posting and careful listening and monitoring of online conversations are critical. It was ill-advised to continue to post sales and marketing messages as customers were irate, waiting for hours and, in some cases, 'enjoyed' a ruined Thanksgiving because of what happened at restaurant locations.

3. A strong marketing and PR program cannot fix operational issues. Especially in the restaurant business. When a restaurant is known to have operational challenges and/or poor customer service, the most creative marketing campaigns and the best limited-time offers in the world cannot fix it. When building a house, a strong foundation and sturdy beams are needed long before choosing a paint color.

Align Marketing with Operations

4. Brands should under-promise and over-deliver. Overpromising on customer service and quality, followed by a failure to execute, is a death knell. Firm alignment between what happens at the corporate level with how it is delivered in a face-to-face transaction is essential.

5. Likewise, make sure the entire team is on board and engaged. With a national restaurant brand like Boston Market, employees on the front lines and local store managers are responsible for assuring customer service and executing restaurant promotions.

In this case, Boston Market’s crisis was not limited to one market or region. There are both media and social reports of poor handling on the ground at numerous restaurants. It is clear many locations were unprepared for the onslaught. This occurred despite most orders were placed online, ahead of the holiday. The company should have anticipated inventory needs. Had its operational team prepared well for what was needed, execution at the local level, even if not perfect, might have survived the holiday.

Silence is Not Always Golden

6. Once a crisis hits, brands should respond promptly and transparently. While in Boston Market’s case the holiday had passed, the head-in-the-sand approach to marketing continued. Even as it posted marketing content on social, customers continued asking for a response and sharing highly critical complaints. To date, Boston Market has yet to respond publicly. Based on customer feedback, there were few behind-the-scenes assurances of making needed corrections.

7. Brands should never underestimate the value of an authentic apology. Boston Market could not fix the day-of-Thanksgiving debacle once it occurred, but it certainly could tell customers it was sorry.

Even now, the company could–and should–express concern for customers, underscore the value of its relationships and trust with those customers, and express genuine remorse for what took place.

While Boston Market still can turn this around, it is a much heavier lift as time passes. It seems the company is entrenched in a 2-part response strategy: ignore what's occurred and continue the holiday marketing campaign unabated. What happens next will be telling.

Hinda Mitchell is president of Inspire PR Group