Philly Coffee Shop is a Lesson in Crisis Communication Gone Wrong

Common Grounds, a new, trendy coffee shop, recently opened in Philadelphia, sparking controversy with one particular piece of their decor and showing how not to execute crisis communication.

The shop, which opened in September, had all the makings of the perfect space. It seems as though great coffee, food and music was not the main thing on everyone’s mind. Displayed prominently on one of the shop’s brick walls was a pink neon sign reading, “Up All Night on Adderall.”

To some it seemed like the perfect addition to the shop’s look, but other customers were quick to take to social media, keyboards raging on how the sign was glorifying drug misuse.

Let’s take a closer look at how the situation developed and the crisis communication blunders that occurred at every step of the process.

Measure twice, cut once

Common Grounds is within walking distance of Temple University, which creates an ideal proximity for a coffee shop to a college campus. The location shows the owners had some forethought of where they’d be most successful, but that is where their quick thinking stopped.

While many can agree the sign is in poor taste, it leaves an even bigger sting being close to Temple University. 

In December 2017, the university lost two students to drug overdoses in the same week.

A major element of crisis communication is anticipating crises before they occur. The company clearly cut corners and did not do their research.

Temple students would be at a heightened risk to be affected by what already is an offensive sign. A quick Google search into the university’s history would have made it clear that a message of staying up on Adderall is not exactly going to be a fan-favorite.


Build a team, build a message

When Common Grounds’ Instagram page began to become filled with negative comments, it was clear the company needed to respond. They decided to take a personal approach and respond to some people directly.

Whoever was in charge of the company’s Instagram had one too many cups of coffee and came out swinging, quick to defend the shop, labeling some critics as “hypocrites.”

In the midst of a crisis, it is important to already have an established team and solid message. This small coffee shop likely has limited resources, but that is no excuse for them not to screen their social media person.

Instead, be ready to execute a crisis communication plan, starting with a sincere apology.


Give the people what they want

To be fair, Common Grounds did issue an apology of sorts on their Instagram page.

“We appreciate your concerns and value your voice,” the company wrote. “We are sincerely sorry for any misunderstandings. We truly care about you and your well being. We felt the need to let you know…….. Have a Wonderful Day.”

My favorite part of the apology is the random Margaret Mead quote. What’s yours?

Here, the company did a number of things wrong. They did not address the problem. It is important to state what you did wrong and what you learned from it. Let your stakeholders know how you plan to better educate yourself and make things right.

Instead, they should have tried something like:

“We are truly sorry to all those who were affected by the use of the sign in our restaurant. It was in poor taste and does not reflect the welcoming and inclusive space we envisioned when we first opened our doors to the community. We have removed the sign and plan to educate ourselves on the history of the neighborhood we are now a part of and the drug epidemic currently taking place in Philadelphia. Trust is a hard thing to build, but we are hoping to gain yours back over time.”


I’m going to need another cup

It took Common Grounds several weeks before they removed the sign. It is fine to defend your brand, but it is even more important to know when legitimate missteps are made and own up to them.

For Common Grounds, they started to poke holes in a sinking ship. For the rest of us, a lesson in crisis communication was served up piping hot.

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