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Five Guys Didn't Go Viral Earlier This Month. That's the Point

If you missed it, it’s okay. The “news” that a customer was charged $24 for just a burger, fries, and a soft drink led to social media condemnations about “highway robbery” and out-of-control prices. But the “controversy” seems to have evaporated — in large part because Five Guys CEO Jerry Murrell didn’t say a thing.

Murrell and his communications team know what a lot of leaders do not: that while public opinion can be harsh, it also has a short attention span. Not every corporate crisis needs the CEO out in front for damage control - and, as Anheuser-Busch found out last year, sometimes saying more can make things worse

There are absolutely times when leaders should not only get in front of headlines, but make new ones, as Boeing CEO David Calhoun did by appearing in front of Congress after parts blew off a 737 Max mid-flight earlier this year. It was important to show accountability to stakeholders ranging from passengers to airlines to governments. 

But that underscores the point here, and not just because an airplane is a lot louder than a cheeseburger. A lot of the time, when the ketchup hits the fan, a company should simply go quiet, and let five other guys tell its story. 

Leverage customers

For every angry customer who jumps on social media or leaves nasty reviews online, there are often devoted fans who quietly keep buying. Five Guys will likely continue to enjoy support from hundreds of thousands of customers who consistently rank the brand at the top of the fast food world in terms of preference and customer service.

There are many ways companies can leverage customer support. It can be as simple as Yelp reviews and social media posts…or you can include customers in your ads, as many pharmaceutical companies and banks do.

You can also sometimes rely on customers to stand up for you in the press - even if you’re not a national brand.  Right now, in Nashville, Tennessee, a local butcher is fighting for his survival after a new resident moved next door and started filing a series of complaints over the smell of barbecue. Fortunately, Roy’s Meat Service has had great coverage in local guidebook listicles,  and the neighborhood has rallied to Roys defense.

Get lawmaker and regulator endorsements

Elon Musk’s Tesla company has changed the way Americans view electric vehicles. Tesla has been so successful that it has made Musk one of the world’s richest people- and in 2022, it boasted the most U.S. luxury car sales of the year

It’s easy to look at Tesla’s innovative approaches to practically everything it touches and see a model for success. But what helped the company rise in its early days was something just as important - billions of dollars in government subsidies, which provided critical cash and the thumbs-up from regulators and lawmakers.

Government officials may not be widely revered, but they can make or break your product, service, or overall company. It doesn’t require lobbying for subsidies, either - having a selectman or mayor participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony is a huge win for a local business, and getting your patent approved by the U.S. Patent & Trade Office gives you a leg up on the competition.

During a crisis, officials may start off as your opponent, but you can make them into your ally. When the Food & Drug Administration closed Abbott’s baby formula plant after several illnesses, it was hugely damaging for families and for the company. But when the FDA approved the company’s reopening, it was validation that Abbott was operating safely for families nationwide.

Likewise, the public has long trusted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as an arbiter of safety for everything from dietary recommendations to pandemic practices. Its support was necessary for the three initial COVID-19 vaccines to earn trust from medical professionals, elected officials, and the general public. 

Let influencers influence

While Five Guys’ public response for the $24 receipt was as minimalist as its no-frills menu, influencer voices weren’t completely silent. The National Desk ran a story on its nationally syndicated network featuring celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern’s commentary on the weather conditions, the war in Ukraine, and rising minimum wage driving up prices for restaurants like Five Guys. It was the perfect third-party defense by a trusted influencer, and it was widely republished by local media outlets. 

Now, the article doesn’t frame Zimmern as defending Five Guys from this particular receipt “controversy.” It looks to us like National Desk interviewed Zimmern about the general issue of higher food, especially meat prices. This means that Five Guys got off the hook thanks to a major influencer without the company having to say a word.

It’s important to distinguish between organic influencer support and sponsored support, like when Garth Brooks gave a nod to Bud Light. Brooks’s support for Bud Light throughout its year-long controversy surrounding the Dylan Mulvaney partnership has driven headlines - but he has a vested interest due to the upcoming opening of his self-branded bar and entertainment venue. 

Both sponsored and organic influencer support can get the job done. But one has a vested business interest while the other appears  more authentic. 

Build trust before crisis hits

Companies like Five Guys build brand trust through excellent processes and outcomes, and they expand that trust through good marketing and public relations. For example, the chain boasts major workplace awards from respected business outlets like Forbes and Fortune. This sort of coverage shows that reputable institutions recognize Five Guys’ good practices, and Five Guys can repurpose the articles for social media posts, website content, and improved SEO.

Another great brand “brag” is earned media through non-traditional placements, like Spider-Man’s worshipful endorsement of Five Guys’ burgers in a 2021 Marvel comic book.

This strategy applies to any company, large or small. Roy’s in Nashville wouldn’t have public local support if he hadn’t spent years building a trusted brand. And Boeing’s crises over the last five years would put any company that didn’t have decades of universally acknowledged success out of business. 

Let others tell your story 

In the era of social media, every brand, everywhere, is subject to criticism. You certainly don’t have to create another news cycle by responding - but nor do you have to withdraw like a turtle. Sometimes, you can rely on everyone from influencers to customers to have your back by driving your narrative…without you having to say a word. 

Dustin Siggins is a business columnist and founder of the publicity firm Proven Media Solutions.  Republished with permission.
Five Guys Didn't Go Viral Earlier This Month. That's the Point