I started classes for my Masters in Communications and PR in the University of Ulster on the 26th of September and one of the first things I’ve learned so far is that jokes about domestic violence are a terrible way to sell ribs.
That’s going to need a little context. Ribs n’ Bibs is a small restaurant in Belfast owned by a man called Malachi Toner. On the 27th of September images started doing the rounds on social media of their advertising blackboard:
Eesh. A “joke” in really poor taste that is deeply offensive to victims of domestic abuse. It did not go down well.
First things first, if anyone reading this has been a victim of domestic violence, here’s a link to Womens Aid NI. A lot of smarter and more eloquent people than me have written about why domestic violence jokes are so horrible, for example.
This blog isn’t about the joke itself but about how the company reacted and what I think they should have done. It’s going to be a bit of an experiment to look back after my Masters and (hopefully) have much better ideas and be able to back them up with way more knowledge.
When the image above started circulating on social media, there was an immediate call from some users to let Ribs n Bibs know how out of order the joke was in the easiest way possible; by leaving 1 star reviews on their Facebook page. A company like Ribs n’ Bibs lives and dies on its Facebook reviews. If you’re visiting Belfast and looking for somewhere to eat, you check online. You also avoid the places with one star reviews.
Within a matter of hours, the restaurant had received approximately 200 1 star reviews, dragging its overall rating down to 1. As of writing there are currently 756 1 star reviews and 98 5 star reviews. It’s overall rating is currently 1.5.
The restaurant’s first reaction, or at least the first reaction of whoever was running their Facebook page was this:
I have a three month old niece. She’s the most perfect baby who has ever lived, but her entire communication skill set consists of staring, the occasional grunt and crying when she’s hungry.
I am certain that she could have come up with a better response than the one above.
The next morning the owner, Malachi Toner, did the rounds of the local Talk Radio shows to try and undo the damage. These will be on demand if you want to listen back. He apologised (which is good) and talked about training and fund raisers (also good) without any actual details (not so good). It didn’t go down as well as Mr Toner would have hoped. Many people online accused him of deflecting, of trying to paint his staff and himself as victims.
What Ribs n’ Bibs have ignored is their conversations with their customers are two-way and symmetric. I gave it a bit of thought and came up with a three step process to try and deal with the problem. I like to think my 3 step programme is a) the right thing to do and b) helps the company resolve a difficult PR problem.
- Apologise. Do it soon. Do it sincerely. Ribs n’ Bibs didn’t get a proper “I’m sorry” out for over twelve hours. The boss needs to take the heat and needs to do it with humility. The most important thing here is speed. Social media doesn’t sleep, the earlier you get involved, the more you can direct the narrative.
- There are plenty of charities and organisations across Northern Ireland that provide help, advice and support to victims of domestic abuse. Contact one of them, explain that you realise the joke was deeply offensive and you want your staff to go through training to explain why it angered so many people and what they should do in the future. Set a date.
- With this same charity organise a fundraiser. I don’t mean a vague promise, set a date.
Once step 2 and 3 are done, put out a joint statement with the charity with details of the training and fundraiser.
By the time you go on the morning radio circuit, you have the chance to move the narrative from “Restaurant makes offensive joke” to “Restaurant quickly learns lesson, donates to charity”.
The very same people who get angry and go destroy your rating on Facebook are the same people who will actually reward you for attempting to right your wrong. This might have been turned into good PR exposure while also raising money for a good cause.
Or maybe not. It’s my first week.
Jason Ashford is studying for a MSc in Communications and Public Relations with Political Lobbying at the University of Ulster. He can be found on Twitter @jasonashford89.