Social media storm reveals risks to reputation

When a chef was exposed as the author of racist comments, social media reacted but what is the long-term reputational damage to the restaurant?

The London restaurant world was hit by controversy earlier this month when the chef of a popular restaurant was uncovered as an online persona, posting racist and homophobic messages on social media channels, including Twitter and Instagram.

Chef Shaun Beagley who was employed by Som Saa, a hugely popular restaurant in the British capital’s trendy Shoreditch area, had also published videos on YouTube, under the name Boring Chef, where he spoke disparagingly of Asian people in a mocking accent. In one recipe, about making coconut milk, he referred to black people as monkeys.

Though he had been posting for a long time and had many followers from within the foodservice industry, it was only earlier this month that attention was drawn to the offensive nature of the posts when several people called them out.

However, it took several days for the restaurant to react to the outrage and fire the chef.

Andy Oliver, co-founder of Som Saa, belatedly posted an apology on Twitter. “Due to the unacceptable comments made by a member of the team on social media he has been let go. The comments are not those of Som Saa or any members of the Som Saa team.”

In a later, more personal, statement Oliver repeated his regret at the turn of events.

“I and the team at Som Saa care passionately about being open, tolerant and welcoming of all people from all backgrounds and nationalities. But through some of my actions and Som Saa’s employment of the individual concerned we have clearly failed to live up to that standard,” he said.“We should have seen it more clearly and we should have acted much earlier and for that we are both saddened and sorry.”

Slow reaction

According to Felicity Read, managing director of Leapfrog PR, a hospitality specialist PR consultancy, it may be too little too late and points to the importance of real time social media monitoring. “Som Saa should definitely have intervened faster and more emphatically, disassociating itself from both the comments and the perpetrator,” she says. “The delayed sacking of the chef will not have helped as that makes it look like he was only ‘let go’ after the restaurant realised the damage that was being done to its brand. It should also have made it clearer that they in no way condoned his activities or comments and disassociated itself very quickly. While the company’s apology appears heartfelt, it may have been too little too late.”

Oliver, who had been following Beagley himself and liked some of his posts, was accused by many of acting too late. Other industry people had commented on the posts, many liking them or thinking they were funny.

Though few in the mainstream media took notice, eventually the reaction on social media highlighted the issue – there is even a Twitter hashtag #somsaashitshow.

Read estimates that it is likely to cause a drop in bookings in the short term and suggests the restaurant will have to develop targeted marketing initiatives to bring customers back.

Som Saa is a growing business with a solid base of enthusiastic fans and it is hard to tell what the longer term damage is, but as Read says, while brand value takes a long time to develop, it can be destroyed in a matter of minutes. “Som Saa has undoubtedly suffered collateral damage to its brand by association with these damaging posts. That damage can be lasting – when people search for the name on social media it will take a lot of effort to ensure that the damning posts don’t appear as the first search engine results. Restoring a reputation is always much harder than creating it in the first place – and that is hard enough in a crowded and competitive market such as a restaurant,” she explains.

Read says in order to prevent a similar situation other operators should write a social media element into staff contracts. “You need to make it clear what is acceptable and what isn’t and make it clear that employees have a responsibility to the employer both on and offline. All business are different but where reputation is at stake, you can’t take risks with your brand,” she says. “No employee should be saying or doing anything online that they would not do in ‘real life’. The internet is no different to a street corner so if you wouldn’t do it on the street don’t do it online. Hiding behind a ‘nom de plume’ is never an excuse.”

Tina Nielsen

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