Real lessons in crisis management: Olive Garden recovers nicely from anti-flag flap

After an initial misstep, Olive Garden corporate has recovered well and looks to be putting an unwelcome controversy behind it.

Yesterday, news broke that an Olive Garden restaurant in Oxford, Alabama, had refused to allow a Kiwanis Club to include their American flag at a banquet there. Eighty-year-old Kiwanis Club member Marti Warren was outraged, “This is not my country. This is not my country I grew up with,” she said. “I was so angry. I felt like I had been slapped in the face.”

Unfortunately, Olive Garden’s first response to the flag flap was weak and only made matters worse. The restaurant chain released a statement aiming to explain away the controversy. After noting that “like all Americans we have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for the American flag and everything it symbolizes,” the company then offered this ham-handed explanation that, predictably enough, only fanned the flames: “To be fair to everyone and avoid disrupting the dining experience for all other guests, [the Oxford restaurant is] unable to accommodate flags or banners of any type in the dining room.”

Remember that crisis management is not about winning an argument debate-style. It’s about winning over hearts and minds. Cold, hard facts often don’t effectively counter emotional complaints. And how is this for emotional imagery on the side of the aggrieved Kiwanis: Without a flag at the Kiwanis banquet, Warren said she asked club members to close their eyes and picture the flag waving in the wind as they said the pledge of allegiance.

Soon the internet was abuzz with boycott threats. Conservative-leaning bloggers were quick to impugn the restaurant’s motives in excluding the Star and Stripes. “Far-left Olive Garden,” began one report.

But today is a new day and more seasoned PR pros evidently won out at Olive Garden corporate.

Olive Garden SVP Bill Holmes called Warren yesterday to personally apologize and promised to fly down to Alabama first thing Monday to personally apologize to the Kiwanis Club. Olive garden also revised its statement, with an apology (and not just the “we’re sorry if anyone was offended by our innocent action…” apology all too common these days; see my earlier posts here and here. And he agreed to return to Oxford Nov. 4 to speak at the next Kiwanis Club meeting.

Much better, Olive Garden. Marti Warren, for one, is satisfied. “I feel grateful of all the people who stood with me and that changes were made,” she said.

- Jon Harmon

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