There is an old saying in public relations that the greatest crises tend to be the self-inflicted ones.
Restaurant chain Chili’s learned that crisis communications lesson the hard way recently when it was roundly criticized for a fundraiser it planned for the National Autism Association, a benign-sounding nonprofit that has courted controversy by suggesting that childhood vaccinations can lead to autism in some cases.
It is understandable why Chili’s would want to support those affected by autism. The restaurant chain rode a wave of positive media and social media attention last year when an employee in Utah acted quickly to help an autistic seven-year-old girl who was upset that her cheeseburger arrived “broken” (i.e., cut in half).
But things went wrong for Chili’s this time just as quickly and unexpectedly as things went right a year ago. Chili’s just wanted to support an important cause, but it failed to do its homework and unwittingly stumbled into the middle of a raging cultural standoff. Politicians may be able to thrive with 49 percent of the population hating them, but businesses can’t and don’t survive that way.
Chili’s canceled the fundraiser and announced that it is looking for alternative ways to support the autism community. But the damage has been done, and Chili’s risks making itself a political football for months to come in a ruthless game between zealots.
So how can you avoid the situation Chili’s finds itself in? A few ways:
- Research – Take the time to understand with whom you are partnering. Almost every organization is going to have some critics, and understanding who those critics are (and what their issues are) is a critical first step.
- Evaluate – Once you have researched your potential partner, evaluate the risks and rewards to determine whether the relationship is worth it.
- Plan – Smart executives know that unexpected things happen, so having a strong framework in place to manage crisis situations is critical. If something does go wrong, dealing with it quickly and decisively will help minimize any reputational and business damage.
The lesson for every company and organization: You are judged not only by what you do, but also by the company you keep. Fairly or not, their baggage can quickly become yours.