Positioning a poisoning

I, for one, have lost my taste for martinis. After the reading today’s front-page story about peach martinis rimmed with caustic cleanser at Doc’s Gumbo Grille, I think I’ll stick with water.

Unfortunately for gumbo lovers, this is a story with staying power. It’s got all the makings of an urban legend: a trio of friends out on the town, mistaken identity (apparently, an employee thought the fryer cleaner was sugar) and horrible, haunting consequences for an innocent night of fun.

And while everyone’s hearts go out to the victims, those of us with marketing inclinations also sympathize with Doug Goolsby, the owner of Doc’s Gumbo Grille. You might be dreaming of martini calamities, but our nightmares are the stuff of communications crises.

For any restaurant to survive an incident of this magnitude, it must:

1) Get a public relations person on the case 2) Take full, unflinching responsibility, 3) Fix the problem (and hopefully improve the entire process) and 4) Help the family.

Ever hear of a little company called Tylenol? They’re only around today because of their impeccable handing of the ’80s bottle-tampering crisis. The company took ownership of the problem, invented several life-saving (if frustrating) safety seals and remains associated with all our aches and pain in the most positive way.

Doc’s is on the right track by talking with the press and admitting fault. But today’s story did not mention firing the person responsible, which would demonstrate that such negligence is unacceptable. I’m not calling for a public hanging, but a simple, “The employees involved have been terminated” would increase public solidarity by showing that Doc’s management also finds the behavior reprehensible.

What’s more, Goolsby’s statement, “I hate that anybody gets hospitalized at your place of business,” sounds cold and self-serving. While the natural inclination of most businessmen is to minimize fault, Goolsby must express real sympathy for the victims and remorse for the incident. He can defend the basic operations of the restaurant, but this incident is indefensible, and he must admit it. New studies show that doctors may be able to avoid most malpractice lawsuits with a simple “I’m sorry,” and public relations cases work the same way.

As a big fan of Doc’s she-crab soup, I hope that Goolsby will have the courage to admit responsibility and hold a press conference sharing new safety procedures to ensure that this type of incident never, ever happens again. I want to hear how he will be paying for all medical bills and recovery days at a spa. If the employees responsible are fired, I will eat there again. But I’ll just stick with water, thanks.

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