Olive Garden Drawn into News Coverage of Capitol Hill Siege

CNN’s Anderson Cooper Creates a Potential “Crisis by Association” for the Popular Restaurant Chain            

1/8/2021 – – Imagine how shocked the management team at Olive Garden was to find its brand embroiled in news coverage and social media chatter regarding Wednesday’s explosive events in Washington D.C. They must have been asking themselves, “What did we do to deserve this, and what do we do now?”

It’s a conundrum companies face when pulled into what I call a crisis by association.

If you missed it, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, commenting on disturbing live scenes from the Capitol, said this:

“Look at them, they’re high-fiving each other for this deplorable display of completely unpatriotic, completely against law and order, completely unconstitutional behavior, it’s stunning . . . And they’re going to go back to the Olive Garden and to the Holiday Inn they’re staying at, or the Garden Marriott, and they’re going to have some drinks and talk about the great day they had in Washington . . . They stood up for nothing other than mayhem.”

Passionate voices defending and denouncing Cooper’s snarky reportage quickly dominated discussion on social media. He was attacked as elitist and out of touch by some, praised by others as insightful and clever. Offended Olive Garden fans raved about the restaurant’s bread sticks, insisting that even a Vanderbilt heir would find them mouthwatering.

Absent so far from the online scrum is the voice of Olive Garden, as well as Holiday Inn and Marriott.  As I argue in Chapter 20 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (“Dealing with Collateral Brand Damage”), in most cases silence is golden when drawn into a crisis by association.

These predicaments can be a brand manager’s worst nightmare: Kool-Aid being linked to the Jonestown cult’s mass suicide; the news media identifying TIKI Brand backyard tiki torches being carried by members of the Ku Klux Klan through the dark streets of Charlottesville; Skittles candies being associated with the killing of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood-watch volunteer; Ambien becoming a focus of Roseanne Barr’s racist Twitter rant against Obama administration advisor Valerie Jarret; Corona beer being associated with the coronavirus.

In most cases, engaging in the dialogue just makes things worse. Olive Garden may be tempted to “make the most” of this visibility. Why not send a few orders of breadsticks as a sign of good will to the CNN newsroom? But what message would that send to Olive Garden’s customers? Anderson Cooper insinuated that the restaurant’s regulars are deplorable, unpatriotic criminals.

And it looks like Olive Garden supporters are doing a terrific job on their own of defending the popular Italian eatery on Twitter:

“All Olive Garden ever wanted to do was provide unlimited salad and breadsticks to the people. They don’t deserve to be dragged like this.”

“There is a literal coup happening and somehow y’all have still found the time to drag Olive Garden.”

When it comes to defense during a crisis — especially a crisis by association — the authentic voices of your supporters are always more powerful than your own. Olive Garden, Holiday Inn and Marriott should monitor the online discussion and unless things change dramatically, let Mr. Cooper explain himself.

The way things look right now, millions of new customers are going to want to see if those breadsticks are worthy of the praise.  

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