Sometimes when we least expect it, we can be suddenly tossed into the limelight. For a local co-owner of a coffee shop, that time was last month. I’ll give a quick bit of background, but this post will focus on the reputation management side of things. I’m not here to place judgement or provide an opinion on the acts of the co-owner or the situation.
John Langley co-owns Red & Black Cafe in Portland, Oregon. The cafe is worker owned and collectively managed, serving vegan fare. Many of the Red & Black Cafe’s patrons are political-type activists (animal-rights and environmental). There is tension between these activists and the police force, which is known throughout the Portland community. On May 18 a Portland police officer purchased a cup of joe from the cafe and was then asked to leave by Langley. The officer left immediately and that was that. Well, not really. The story was written up in the local paper, so if interested you can read more. I’m much more interested in the reputation nightmare this created for these local coffee shop owners, and what they’re doing about it.
The story was picked up by national outlets like Fox News and CNN, which obviously increased the visibility for the situation and the cafe. Suddenly a small cafe in Portland, OR is now the focal point and being talked about across the web. Review sites like Yelp started blowing up. Red & Black Cafe’s Yelp profile now consists of a number of new reviews, mostly from people reacting to the situation. Here is a great interview with Yelp’s Community Manager on the recent Yelp activity, and how Yelp handles reviews where users didn’t actually experience the cafe, but are just posting opinions. A Facebook page called Boycott the Red and Black Cafe, Portland OR was created, and now contains over 21,000 likes. Do a Twitter Search for “black and red cafe” (or “black & red cafe“) and you get a number of results as well. The cafe is seemingly in a PR nightmare. For a small business to face this much scrutiny and negativity, it can potentially ruin a business.
What are the co-owners doing about the problem? So far there has been no online action taken by the Red & Black Cafe owners, as far as I can see. Their site’s homepage is a blog, which has been updated since the events, but they haven’t written anything about the incident. 5 of the top 10 search results for their brand name are articles about the incident (they are below the fold, which is a partial positive). I can’t find a Red & Black Facebook page or Twitter profile. They aren’t running PPC ads for their brand name. It appears they are doing absolutely nothing.
Even though the cafe owners are doing nothing, in my opinion, they’re doing exactly what they should be. There are certain types of reputation issues where I would be assertive and feel the need to combat the issue head on with all of the tactics I just listed (Facebook page, Twitter account, PPC ads, etc), however, when it’s an issue that is as emotionally charged as this one, it may be best to stay out of it; go on about your business and let it pass. Yes, your reputation will take a hit, no doubt about that, but if you continue to add fuel to the fire this is an issue that could drag on for months and months. I would hope that the co-owners of this establishment are diligently monitoring all of this media and not completely turning a blind eye to it, but not acting in a situation like this appears to be best. Since the event took place in mid-May, the cafe has actually seen an increase in business. Whoever said any press is good press was certainly right in this situation.
When your reputation is being questioned or attacked, it’s obviously up to you (or the business owners) how it’s handled. Many folks would be quick to respond to the hundreds of comments or reviews the cafe has received, however, sometimes that kind of reaction can be more harmful than helpful. Replying in the heat of the moment has a tendency to backfire and only cause bigger problems. My suggestion is to take a step back, discuss with your colleagues or close friends, sleep on it and then make a decision. If you plan to retort, I’d recommend compiling a plan of attack on how to combat the negativity, don’t just jump in feet first. In certain situations I would follow Alison Krauss’ advice, “you say it best when you say nothing at all”.