One public relations expert says the Coogee Bay Hotel will forever suffer poo jokes, while another claims it would take foul-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey to clean up the mess.
The popular eastern Sydney pub has had its reputation smeared, and then some, after a Sydney family accused it of serving up ice-cream laced with human faeces.
But its handling of the incident has become a case study in how not to deal with a crisis.
The Whyte family was dished up the free ice-cream at an NRL grand final function on October 5, after complaining they could not hear the televised game over loud music.
Unhappy about the hotel’s response to their claims, Jessica and Stephen Whyte had the dessert independently tested, with the lab finding it contained “properties similar to human excreta”.
The pub countered with its own test on the gelato tub, which cleared it of wrongdoing, only to have the investigating NSW Food Authority confirm the Whytes’ initial positive test on the sample they took home.
The hotel has repeatedly denied the allegations, and has refused to apologise to the family since the story was splashed across Sunday papers this week.
Management has accused the Whytes of trying to extort $1 million from the recently renovated hotel, and even flagged the possibility of industrial sabotage.
All the while people have continued reading about the contaminated dessert over breakfast, and watched a distraught Whyte family recount its experience on the nightly TV news.
Public relations guru Max Markson, from Markson Sparks, labelled the hotel’s attempts to deny responsibility for the dodgy dessert as “amateur hour”.
A public mea-culpa and a Gordon Ramsey-style makeover would be required to restore public trust in the Coogee Bay Hotel, he said.
“If they could bring Gordon Ramsey in, and clean the kitchens, give them a total clean, they need almost to sack all the kitchen staff, which might be outrageous, and start afresh,” he said.
“It might cost them money to start with, but it would reassure or restore public confidence in going to that venue.
“They just spent millions of dollars renovating it all, it would be crazy to lose that enormous investment, to damage their reputation.”
Markson said an apology, rather than implying the Whyte family was to blame, would “prick the bubble of outrage” and allow the pub to move on.
“They need to say sorry and move on … and run the great pub that has been entertaining people in Sydney for God knows how long,” he said.
Tim Powell, managing director at PR firm Cox + Inall Communication said the hotel’s attempts to explain away the controversy had made the story larger, not smaller.
The tit-for-tat battle between the Whyte family and the hotel has just kept the story bubbling away in the media.
The scandal disproved the popular adage that any publicity was good publicity, he said.
Instead, zero publicity was the best outcome when dealing with consumer dissatisfaction.
“Without having the ability to conduct 30 focus groups, my guess is that the key takeout for the general public day by day is, Coogee Bay Hotel equals faeces in gelato,” said Powell, who’s firm handled the storm surrounding the Pan Pharmaceuticals recall.
“The problem with these things is the nuances of what’s been argued have been lost, and people casually peruse newspapers or listen to the radio, or look at stuff online, and they just get the negatives.”
Mr Powell described the story as “a perfect storm in a gelato cup”, saying every restaurant-loving Australian could imagine themselves biting into the faecal-laced desert, as Whyte says she did.
“The notion of the faeces is probably more abhorrent to people than a serious food scare that might be the result of salmonella or other bacteria,” he said.
“It is the symbolism of this story that maximises the outrage. There is just something about the thought of human excrement in food that revolts consumers.
“It’s a family, they had kids, it’s kind of the perfect storm in a gelato cup.”
Before and after the story broke, the hotel should have bent over backwards to placate the Whytes, Powell said.
“There is a science to this about the outrage factor,” he said.
“At the moment that family is quite rightfully outraged – you’ve got to move them from outraged to let’s have a reasonable dialogue.
“I’m not sure if trying to undermine their credibility or belt them up in the media is the right way to do that.
“The key is keeping the dialogue going with the family so that they feel that the issue is being dealt with and is moving forward, so they are less likely to want to go and squeal to the media and make things worse.”
Platinum PR account executive Sarah Fisher agreed, saying the hotel’s belligerent attitude had fuelled the fire.
“Trying to pass the buck is not really appreciated in Australian culture and I think they’ll basically end up looking like they are trying to hide something and pass the blame,” she said.
“In this circumstance it is pretty evident that if this has been found in a frozen desert, then it is not something the family could have easily conspired to do.
“Most reasonable people would assume that this has come from the kitchen – we’ve all heard horror stories of people spitting in food and even worse.”
Fisher, whose clients include businesses involved in the food and wine industries, said the hotel’s alleged offer of $5,000 hush money would probably have just exacerbated the Whytes’ anger, if the story was true.
“How would you take it if you just ate someone’s crap, and they offered you $5,000 to shut up,” she said.
“I would want vengeance rather than money, and this is possibly what this person is looking for. I would certainly feel that an apology would be somewhat in order.
“You’ve got to think for this woman, she’ll never be able to trust eating out again.
“A part of her life and her lifestyle has now been eroded by this one simple act. It is pretty horrific. It is not just a matter of – sorry you ate poo and here is $5,000.”
To show the public something was being done, the hotel should overhaul its kitchen, and bring someone to account for the contaminated dessert, she said.
But no matter what the pub did to restore its reputation – a feat Ms Fisher said would be an “uphill battle” – the Coogee Bay Hotel would be forever known for serving up the contaminated treat.
“In the local community it will get dubbed as that, because something infamous is always more likely to have recall than something positive,” she said.
“It will be, should we go there for poo for dessert? It is going to be an uphill battle for this hotel to win the trust back of the public and I guess their dining experience will probably be a joke for a while.
“I think these things sometimes fall into Australian folklore. I don’t think you can ever disassociate yourself from something like this.”