We spend a lot of time explaining case studies of what NOT to do – just last week, we discussed How McDonald’s Convinces Employees It Doesn’t Care.  It gets frustrating. So when a company responds to a crisis with empathy, skill, and honesty, I can’t help but crow.

And that’s exactly what happened this weekend when  poor judgment, football fanaticism, racial stereotypes, and social media combined into a major crisis for Sonic Drive-In. It was the kind of PR disaster that can destroy careers, close businesses, and rip fragile community relationships apart.  But we can all learn from Sonic’s response – and their commitment to building trust both externally and internally.

The Crisis

Two days ago in Missouri this sign appeared outside a Sonic Drive-In in the town of Belton.

Business owners have been showing their support for their favorite teams for generations. Even 100 years ago when my great-grandfather coached high school basketball, local shops and restaurants would proudly endorse their home teams with discounts, sponsorships, and free food to stir up support before a big game. There’s nothing wrong about a little team spirit, nor is friendly rivalry offensive.

But this sign went beyond team spirit and friendly rivalry when it read “‘KC CHIEFS’ WILL SCALP THE REDSKINS FEED THEM WHISKEY SEND -2- RESERVATION.”

The sign was only up for a couple hours in a small town, but that was long enough (UPDATED: There are two version of the sign floating around. According to reports, the employee posted two different variations on the sign within one hour). In just twelve words, this sign managed to upset just about everyone. Native Americans were horrified and upset to see stereotypes being used – let alone casually exploited to promote a business. On top of that, this comes in the middle of the hot debate about using ethnic names for sports teams. Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, has been in the press lately for refusing requests from the Oneida National to change the teams name. And to make it worse, alcohol-related deaths are three times as common among Native Americans – a grave situation that many tribes are struggling to improve. Sports fans on both sides were upset to be associated with this attitude. And the internet exploded.

People started tweeting Sonic, demanding answers and restitution.

The Reponse

That’s when Sonic did a rare thing in modern social media: they stepped up, and they handled a crisis right.  Within an hour, they were responding directly to tweets with information, empathy, objection, and personal apologies.

And that wasn’t all. They responded to every single tweet. The message was generally the same, but each tweet was phrased a little differently, making it obvious that there was a real person responding to each complaint – not just an intern hitting cut-and-paste repeatedly.
And that very evening, Sonic’s Vice President of Public Relations spoke with NBC News about the incident. The article says:

Patrick Lenow, vice president of public relations at Sonic, told NBC News that the sign was created by an employee who is “known for creative use of his signs,” but that this sign was done “in poor taste.”

“The remarks posted on this message board were wrong, offensive and unacceptable,” Lenow said in a statement. “In a misguided effort to support his football team an independent franchise owner allowed passion to override good judgment. The owner has reinforced with his employees the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable. On behalf of the franchise owner and our entire brand we apologize for the offensive remarks.”

Here’s what’s truly remarkable about how Sonic’s corporate office responded: they weren’t even responsible for the mistake. The location where this happened was privately owned franchise. They were suckerpunched by the situation – and still responded to the crisis with perfect control, a clear message, and trust-building empathy.

UPDATED (12/10/13 at 12:12pm PST): It looks like Sonic is *still* responding to each tweet. You can check out how they’re handling it on their Twitter profile here.

What They Did That Worked

What did Sonic do right?

1. They acknowledged the public’s anger, hurt, and outrage — and AGREED with it.
When asked “Do you condone this?” their answer was simple: “No we do not. It is wrong and hurtful.”

2. They found out why this happened, and then told the public.
The owner authorized an employee to make a sign. The employee had a track record of making amusing signs, and screwed up this time.

3. They didn’t throw anyone under the proverbial bus.
Sonic used it’s corporate account – and experience – to communicate the franchise owner’s anger and response.  They explained that the employer is taking it very seriously, and that the employee who screwed up is being educated and trained. And they are not releasing the name of the employee.

Why It Was Rare – And Powerful

The last point is probably the most important trust-building choice Sonic could make in this crisis.

See, when a franchise has trouble, corporate’s instinct is often to protect itself from liability. “It was the franchise owner!” they cry. “We’re not responsible for this! It’s not our fault! Don’t blame us!” The public learns that the company is incompetent, or just doesn’t care.

The franchise owner – usually a regional business owner unprepared to handle national media scrutiny – is left on their own to explain the problem. And when they inevitably fumble their response, the situation escalates for everyone. The franchise owners learn that corporate just wants its cut of the profits and won’t help them in a crisis.

It usually ends with the employee getting sacked.  And employees learn that they’re on their own if they make a mistake or have a problem – whether or not it was intentional or malicious, large or small.

No one wins when that happens.  In the end, the same company that tried to protect itself from liability becomes more succeptible to it, because they’ve convinced their employees that hiding mistakes is less dangerous than trying to fix them. We discussed this in detail before in this post: You Did This To Yourself: Motivating With Fear.

But Sonic broke that cycle by showing its franchise owners and their employees that corporate leadership will back them up. They made a brave, bold, and so so so simple choice to help everyone involved. As the great W. Edwards Deming taught, they drove out fear. They showed everyone that Sonic is committed to help everyone associated with their brand – whether they’re legally obligated to help them or not. They showed all Sonic employees that they are partners and assets to be developed – not resources to be exploited and disposed of.

The local owner will still need to rebuild trust with the local community – especially the Native Americans who live and work there. He’s still going to need to work with the employee. And he’s going to have to take a hard – and uncomfortable – look at how his management style allowed this to happen. But it will be easier for him to do that thoughtfully and successfully when corporate is giving him critical assistance.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.