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Scattered & Smothered: Waffle House PR Strategy

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10 Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

A Case Study in Online Public Relations & Crisis Management

Police arrested a 66 year old woman this week for refusing to pay her $7.45 tab at Waffle House. The story got picked up by Drudge Report, then the broader media and finally through blogs and social media networks.

This is not a bona fide PR crisis, but this situation reflects poorly on Waffle House, a national chain with ~1500 stores. Dumb criminals are entertaining, but reports aren’t clear about why she didn’t (couldn’t?) pay. Many bloggers are finding fault with the restaurant and railing against it. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Google Blog Search]

The store manager probably should have discreetly waived the bill, although I can’t imagine they thought the situation would be elevated to national attention. Regardless, this is an opportunity for the company to define it’s relational strategies for crisis management and online consumer interaction.

Background: Waffle House Serves a Broad Base

Full disclosure: I love Waffle House. It’s a brand steeped in Diner Americana invoking the hot black coffee retreat painted by Edward Hopper. The all-day-breakfast menu is working class fuel, from pre-dawn to the deep night-shift. It’s the kind of place comfortable memories are made, from roadtrip pitstop adventures to the nighthawk’s final call.

Waffle House Waffle House Waffle House
Waffle House Waffle House Waffle House

Waffle House is a cultural icon rich in user-generated content. Click images to see Flickr comments.

Waffle House offers simple food, folksy patrons and they have some of the hardiest working & friendliest servers in the industry. Sitting next to the grill line when the place is slammed, the hot sizzle, greasy smells and barking orders is poetic to a business process nerd like me.

Recent Waffle House PR Challenges & Responses

Waffle House has already faced a series of bad press from unruly customers.

  • October 2008 Robberies occur in Texas and Alabama. A fatal shooting Florida is met with calls for boycotts online.
  • August 2008 LiveLeak has security video of a brawl complete with racist comments about Waffle House customers. The company should nail whoever is releasing these security videos to the public, although methinks it may have been released by plaintiff litigants who obtained them through the course of Discovery. Unfortunately, the damage is done; the company’s best response is being prepared next time.
  • March 2008 Kid Rock at Waffle HouseKid Rock pleaded not guilty for fighting in a Waffle House. I love the company’s response: they invited the star back to a restaurant to greet his fans and raise money for a local homeless shelter. Spokesperson Kelly Thrasher explains the company wanted to “take a negative situation and turn it into a positive situation.”

Waffle House brand managers should proactively apply this positive philosophy to social media. This recent series of events can be the impetus for a cohesive online PR strategy that touts the brand’s long-standing reputation for good customer service.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”

What Should Waffle House Do?

I recommend a deep dive on some of these general actions.

  • Develop an Online Persona
    One can expect resistance to social media from a brick-and-mortar diner chain, especially one that doesn’t advertise. Traditional PR might consult with Legal and publicly drop all charges. Or partner with local homeless services nonprofits.
    However, consumers have already extended the brand across social networks (more on that below). Blue collar audiences are online, 70% use social media and savvy brands are serving them.
    Whataburger is a Southern burger chain with a made-to-order heritage that targets men, 50+. It’s ad agency McGarrah-Jessee drives a polished effort online as well as in direct, outdoor and cool broadcast work reminiscent of my favorite down-home man-it-up Miller High Life spots.
    We tailored the BecomeAnEX campaign to help multiple shades of blue-collar audiences. We found a majority of our target already online and eagerly embracing mobile technologies.
  • Engage Existing Communities
    My brief research uncovered a bevy of positive stories, pictures, a Wikipedia article and scores of cult-classic sentiments like this unassuming Waffle House Wedding in Georgia that would have been a hoot to crash. Git ‘er done!
    The alt.food.waffle-house Usenet group has 6000 members, there are YouTube videos, 1000s of pics on Flickr, large fan groups on Facebook and Ning and constant tweets on Twitter to name a few.
    Once brand managers know where people congregate online, they can enter discussions via PR and interactive advertising. I believe an approachable persona mixed in humurous kitsch and classic PR would be very well received in micromedia formats (@woot comes to mind).
  • Develop Distinct Strategies for Each Platform
    Social media outlets are unique and some communities lend themselves to different business objectives (i.e awareness, response, promotion, revenue, feedback channels, etc). Plan accordingly.
  • Leverage UGC
    Integrate user-generated content into Waffle House web properties.
  • Attach the Brand to a Quirky Holiday
    Real Men CookWaffle House already does this to some extent. They are a sponsor of Real Men Cook, a family celebration event hosted on Father’s Day in Atlanta. Waffle House benefits with buzz marketing, product placement and celebrity endorsement.
    The company also celebrates National Waffle Week and hosts the World Waffle Eating Championship that garners press for it’s high-profile speed eaters.
    A cheap Quirky Holiday SEM Strategy could generate local press, elevate presence of mind & uptick sales for a couple days on an otherwise off-beat holiday. Eat What You Want Day [May 11] could be fun given their pick-n-choose menu. Other possibilities: Lips Appreciation Day [Mar 16] and No Housework Day [Apr 7].
  • Update the “Newsroom”
    I’d wager the Waffle House Newsroom got a lot of hits today with this story. And it hasn’t been updated in over two years. Good media relations is critical.
  • Web Analytics & PR Measurement
    Judging by the state of the site, and the apparent lack of a full-time PR manager, I’d wager executives don’t study inbound traffic sources. At one time, Waffle House partnered with Vocus for on-demand news monitoring and measurement. Hopefully company employs basic online monitoring.
  • Implement a Brandjacking Defense Posture
    These are just the kind of one-off stories that instigate a brandjacking that will probably run it’s course in a few days. Even if this case probably will not hurt the brand long-term, why risk it? It appears @wafflehouse has already been brandjacked on Twitter and on Google’s Blogspot.
    Using my Social Media Checklist, Waffle House brand managers should snag social media profiles, even if it doesn’t actually engage followers.
  • Speak to Security Concerns
    Customers need to feel safe. Be open about what security measures the company is taking and address flagrant misstatements when they occur. This requires active and passive online brand monitoring.
  • New Price Points
    I’m not privy to current Waffle House pricing strategies, although, I do remember All You Can Eat deals for $3.99 in college! Brands have to be careful about competing on price when a depressed economy eventually recovers. However, this story got traction because of the economy; people will make a connection on price & this lady being unable to afford $7.45. A temporary high-level plan can hedge against public blowback.

Enterprise Strategies in Social Media

While PR focused on external messaging, Waffle House can use social media for internal infrastructure communications.

  • Franchise Communications
    A few years ago, I got an internal sneak peak at Schlotzsky’s efforts to shore up internal communication among franchisees during a restructuring phase. I’d keep an eye out for anything that supported franchise relations specifically.
  • Collaborate On Internet Messaging & Brand Identity
    Schlotzsky’s also addressed inconsistencies in external messaging, branding and stores across the franchise system, both in traditional and online advertising. From what I can tell, Waffle House is facing similar challenges today. Even after establishing a strict code of branding guidelines, policing and enforcement requires dedicated resources.
  • Regional Online Marketing & Domainjacking Avoidance
    The lack of an online messaging strategy also puts the brand at risk for domainjacking. Franchises are already grabbing their own domain names, which is common when marketplace planning and legal don’t keep pace with technology.
    Waffle House should have a unified front in the WaffleHouse.com domain, improve the store locator & offer marketing pages for franchise owners so they can leverage the brand for local promotion. Following this, the company can develop strategies for regional online marketing & mitigate the risk of domainjacking.

Is this case study helpful? What would you suggest to Waffle House executives? Please share your thoughts below!

Comment Below Tweet me @shannonswenson


10 Comments For This Post

  1. girlofwords

    I didn’t really rail against Waffle House anywhere … I more or less observed that nowhere in the story did anybody point out WHY she wouldn’t pay her $7.45. And, I mean, I just pointed out that you’re not eating at Ruth’s Chris Steak House when you go to Waffle House, so to me, it’s kind of ridiculous to take a stand against a $7.45 bill. And even more stupid to go to jail for it.

  2. Shannon Swenson

    @girlofwords, I’m not referring to your post, rather to the ensuing discussion (although you called their food “crap”). People took this opportunity to share their legitimate bad customer experiences at “Awful Waffle.” Some of your readers defended, but this might have been mitigated had Waffle House gotten in front of this story and engaged channels where people are venting.

    Don’t get me wrong, cheerfully serving good food helps too :) Thanks for your feedback!

  3. Shannon Swenson

    Oh, and if she intended to steal a free dinner and get a free night in the pokey, I agree. She might have been better served to pull this stunt at Ruth’s Chris, lol.

  4. girlofwords

    I definitely get what you’re saying. :) But seriously, their food is crap. But so is the food in a lot of other places. I’m a reporter/editor, so I’m really much more upset that nowhere in any story I’ve seen does anybody tell me WHY she didn’t pay.

    You know who has GREAT service for getting in front of a situation? A chain of places called Organic 2 Go. Back in September I wrote about going there and I did a tongue-in-cheek post about how when the guy weighed my salad, it was a little more than a pound and he said “whoa.” So, my post was “Thank you for making me feel like a fattie, Organic 2 Go.” Less than 30 minutes later, the marketing and PR company for them e-mailed me directly to talk to me about the problem. I assured them I didn’t want anybody to get fired, and I actually thought it was funny, but they may wanna tell their people to keep the gatekeeper around. :) I thought their handling of it was top shelf. That’s how you handle someone. These companies have this technology available, but so few use them.

    Fight the good fight. :) I’m gonna throw your link on my blog roll (as soon as I’m off deadline … shh.). I like what you’re doing here. :)

  5. Shannon Swenson

    Yes, THAT is the kind of online PR I’m talkin’ about! The technology is there and most online PR can be handled internally with a modicum of training. Even a little basic effort can be pretty cheap.

    So now I’ll stand-by to see if Organic 2 Go picks up this conversation and chimes in :)

  6. Deb Monauni

    I am currently attempting to do a waffle house photo project in 10 states and I need votes to get the cash to do so, it only takes a minute.You can read about it on the link below. This is a dream photo assignment project and yes I picked Waffle House…After you vote you can right your waffle house in the comment section. THANKS


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About Me

I am an executive-level interactive producer specializing in social media, online community management and buzz marketing for national accounts. I provide agency support & client service across multiple industries. I love integrated campaign strategy, working with creative teams, kicking-off projects and driving them through launch.

I am currently working at Charles Schwab in Austin, Texas.

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Left Brain
SEO, media strategy, web analytics, web application architecture, server architecture, e-commerce platforms, data modeling
  Right Brain
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Contact Shannon

Shannon Swenson
Austin, Texas
512-472-3090 x1

hello [at] shannonswenson [dot] com