Crisis PR Matters: Even for Small Business Owners Who Don’t Know How to Use the Internet

Crisis PR Matters: Even for Small Business Owners Who Don’t Know How to Use the Internet

This post from Ami Neiberger-Miller , founder of Steppingstone, LLC. It is an intriguing look into how a small Loudoun County business faced a PR Crisis with no Crisis PR plan in place.  

Crisis PR Matters: Even for Small Business Owners Who Don’t Know How to Use the Internet

“I don’t know how to use the Internet” is not an excuse that holds water in this day and age – not if you have a small business and deal with the public. And not if you are facing a public relations crisis.

Nichols Hardware prides itself on being a “step back in time” – where service is personal, the floorboards are creaky, and receipts are written by hand. The century-old family hardware store in Purcellville came under fire recently. A customer took to Facebook in May 2018 to share she witnessed a store employee belittle a Boy Scout in uniform and his father – when the boy came into the store to ask if supplies for an Eagle Scout project could be donated.

In the customer’s telling, the employee was rude to the boy and his father – threw them out of the store – and tossed in some anti-gay slurs and negative comments about boy scouting. Other employees in the store did nothing.

This had all the makings of going nuclear – and it did.

The customer’s Friday Facebook post was shared over the weekend and generated calls for a boycott. By Sunday, there was a story in the Washington Post about the controversy.

It didn’t help the store when the one employee willing to talk to the reporter would only give his first name (this is a great way to look like you are doing something you shouldn’t when dealing with the press) and called the allegation “hearsay” (hello, it happened 24 hours ago, do you not know what happened yet? Time to be clear is now). Their response improved and the store clawed its way onto firmer footing when he told the Post, “I won’t put up with it,” he said. “If it turns out to be true, he will be terminated.”

The store’s manager told the Post that he was worried about what the fuss might mean for the store. “It’s costing us business,” he said. But he noted there was no way he would know what was happening online. “I don’t use the Internet,” he said. “I don’t know how to use the Internet.” Herein rests mistake #2 – not keeping up with what people are saying about your business on social media.

A stronger response to the Washington Post could have dispelled the issue and perhaps headed off broadcast coverage. But no. In the interview with the Post, the store comes across as not fully aware of what happened, hiding something, and not in touch with a huge segment of the community that was venting its anger and stewing over the situation on social media. The Washington Post story was a missed opportunity for the store leadership to right the ship.

Meanwhile, the father of the belittled scout wrote on the Yelp review for the store: “Thrown out!!!  Can’t believe it, I have shopped here since 1985.  Went in with my son to get help with his Eagle Scout project.  We were told to leave because the boy has been removed from Boy Scout.  The employee started a rant about the scouts being destroyed allowing girls and homosexuals to join scouting. We won’t be back.” The story continued to gain traction and Yelp put the store’s account under “monitoring” because so many negative reviews came in.

By Monday, the entire town was aflame with comments. Many expressed dismay and surprise that the store’s ownership had not said something yet about the controversy.

Supporters of the hardware store did not help its situation by defending some of the employee’s views on scouting and circulating appalling memes showing girls ages 10-12 in girl scout uniforms who were made to look pregnant – with text noting this would happen with boy scouts now including girls (apparently the meme creators aren’t aware that Boy Scouts have had co-ed camping trips with girls age 14 and up for several years through the Venturing program – and the last time I checked, high school band trips, safety patrol trips to DC, and many other youth activities were co-ed).

This is what made the situation a truly epic PR crisis – the connection of poor customer service and bigotry – with a larger cultural war about changes in scouting. And with a story published in the Washington Post – more press would soon be following. The Loudoun Times Mirror promptly piled on with a story.

On Monday afternoon Nichols Hardware hustled up someone to make a Facebook page for the store (finally…only about 8 years late). The creator helpfully uploaded a couple of flip phone quality photos and posted at 3pm, “*Note* Management and owners are looking into an unfortunate event which took place this weekend and will be making an official statement later today.” Then they didn’t post a statement that day as promised (epic fail).

By Monday afternoon, NBC4 had rolled into town and was outside the store. And so was WUSA9, the CBS affiliate. Purcellville may be small, but this was enough to draw the attention of television crews in the 6thlargest TV news market in the country.

And again, the store’s leadership botched an opportunity to address the issue. It was now 72 hours since the original incident on Friday afternoon that started all of this. Even if the store’s owners had spent the weekend befuddled over the existence of Facebook and Yelp – by Monday morning they should have been working hard to find out what happened and formulated a response.

They could have invited the TV crews in, said look, here’s what we think happened, we don’t countenance homophobia, we apologize for what one of our employees said, and here’s what we are doing to make the situation right. If they had said those things, that moment of honesty and clarity would have been in the TV stories, countered the negative elements swirling, and gone a long way to re-assuring the community about the store, its leadership and their views.

Instead, they did nothing. They told the TV reporters no one from the store would go on camera. They were silent and gave up opportunities to earn back trust. So NBC4 did a story and WUSA9 did one too. The store façade made a great back drop – and it looked like the owners were hiding out in there biting their nails and still unsure of what to do. The Washington Post story meanwhile syndicated into other publications, like the Chicago Tribunegiving not only the store, but the community a none-too-nice reputation.

Being silent – sends a loud message – and not a positive one. Being silent left the store in league with their homophobic and rude employee. Being silent let them paint their accuser – a customer who observed the incident – as an attention-seeker – and granted license to their defenders and their horrible memes. Being silent let them hide their heads in the sand – as if closing one’s eyes and yelling “I’m invisible” can work. It doesn’t.

If you own a business today – even if you don’t like social media or the Internet – you have to be aware of it and monitor it. Your customers are there. They are paying attention and they will use these platforms to talk about you – not just in negatives – but in positives too. And if controversy erupts – you cannot in this day and age give up opportunities to explain yourself in the media if you make a mistake. You have to get a handle on the situation and respond quickly – because social media and today’s press can quickly make a situation bigger.

Personally, I live in Purcellville and I’ve shopped at Nichols Hardware in the past. They are old-fashioned in terms of how they operate, and it once took me 30 minutes to return a tea kettle that wouldn’t whistle, but I’ve never had trouble and the service has been professional and personal for me. I was rooting for them even while ticking off mistake after mistake in their response to this crisis.

Finally, they responded a day late on Facebook, asking their employee to post a short statement indicating that the employee involved had been terminated and that they do not share his views. It’s too bad they didn’t get a PR person to proofread the statement – it’s pretty good – but a pro would have caught the use of “even” when “event” was intended. If you are only going to speak a little, you have speak correctly.

Unfortunately, that post on May 22, 2018 was their last one. And while it’s gotten a huge numbers of comments and shares and the controversy has faded, it appears the store’s leadership has not learned much from this experience and is not engaging in social media regularly. It’s too bad, because other businesses with historic and proud legacies have used social media to draw in new customers, build rapport, and attract business.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

Business Netiquette and Digital Presence

Business Netiquette and Digital Presence

How do you promote a positive digital presence as a small business or brand?

-Restaurant Berates Customer for Bad Review
-Local Business Spars with Customer Over Quality of Services
-New Brand Makes Waves with Sub Par Products

These could very well be similar headlines to some seen online just this week. Businesses could avoid these eye-catching taglines with a quick lesson in online etiquette or netiquette.

There are many opportunities on the World Wide Web when it comes to small businesses, but those opportunities can turn toxic quickly. Often, netiquette goes straight out of the window when it comes to small businesses online. Having a plan and a comprehensive understanding of internet etiquette can serve to save a business from undue criticism in a digital world.

The following tips can serve as reminders for companies and brands to improve their digital prowess and avoid common pitfalls online.

Be Present Online:

A business should have a digital presence on whatever platform makes sense for them. They should choose the platform with which they can consistently engage. Avoiding social platforms may be detrimental as customers and clients often head to the internet first when researching new brands. Companies want to ‘show up’ in more ways than simply a website.

Be Intentional:

What businesses post online should align with their brand and the goals for their digital strategy. If a company is looking to promote transparency in a behind-the-scenes approach, the published content should reflect that feeling. If they are seeking to educate, the content should be consise, clear and informative. One of the biggest blunders made by businesses is muddying their messages with an overabundance of disjointed content. Stay consistent. Stay Concise.

Be Professional:

Most business owners would not choose to have a knock-down drag-out verbal altercation with a customer in their establishment, yet we see the online equivalent all too often. In our current landscape of connectivity, the chances of a negative review or perceived experience are high. If a business is on the receiving end of such a review, defending, arguing or negatively engaging is a poor choice. On the other hand, completely ignoring the review is also a poor choice. Striking the right balance in responding can preserve a positive digital presence.

Be Patient:

Consistent and on-brand content will help to promote the overall presence of a business. It may also serve to create new warm-leads as potential customers get to know a brand. The practice of sharing content consistently and positively engaging with followers will help to genuinely and authentically build an audience. Patience is the name of the game.

Overall, netiquette follows a few golden rules: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” as well as “Say it forget it*, write it regret it.” If businesses don’t want words to haunt them, they shouldn’t post them online. *Companies are best not to say things they don’t want online as well with the abundance of video popping up online.

If you’re looking to jumpstart your business’ presence online or have questions regarding the creation of a digital strategy or netiquette guidelines, email [email protected] for a complimentary Digital Marketing Audit. MOKup Media

Debbie Cabala of John Marshall Bank Talks about Small Business

Debbie Cabala of John Marshall Bank Talks about Small Business

By Robin Suomi, Founder, Startup to Growth, LLC.
I recently interviewed Debbie Cabala, Vice President, Business Development Officer of John Marshall Bank, asking her about her experience working with small business owners in Leesburg and the surrounding Loudoun County, Virginia area.

When I first met with Debbie, I was struck by her friendliness and savvy small business banking knowledge.  I knew I wanted to tap into that expertise, so I asked her to help me launch a project I was working on at that time, a series of blog posts titled, Ask the Experts.  She jumped right in.  Not that that surprised me, because all the bankers at John Marshall Bank have shown equal professionalism and enthusiasm in my interactions with them.  Read what Debbie says about how she works with small businesses and learn more about John Marshall Bank.  Don’t miss Debbie’s Top Tips to help you improve your business, and read her Top Mistakes so you’ll know what to avoid!

I’d love your help on this project, too.  In our Ask the Experts series we will also interview attorneys, accountants, marketing professionals, insurance brokers and other small business professionals to get their advice for entrepreneurs.  Is there someone you recommend we interview?  Do you have a specific subject or question you would like us to ask an expert about?  Great!  Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it.

Finally, are you or a friend thinking about starting a business or re-energizing a company you started a while back that has been ho-humming along?  Look for our How to Start a Business: Your Successful Launch online course launching July 2017.  Make your summer count.

We’re all about small business here at  We love watching YOU start and grow YOUR business!

Happy blogging!
Robin Suomi


Q: Debbie, thank you for giving us your time to help educate small business owners about banking.  Let’s start by giving our readers your name and telling us a little bit about your company and how you work with small business owners. 

Debbie:  How many community banks can claim they are one of the Best Performing Banks in Virginia?  Or how about a local bank claiming a national “health” rating of an A+?  My name is Debbie Cabala, and I work at that bank – John Marshall Bank.

Our bank’s corporate culture puts the customer first, offering a hefty dose of personal attention while tailoring the latest banking products and services to meet your financial needs.  We are local bankers, at a local bank, working with small businesses to customize the right package of banking products to suit their unique needs.   I am interested in the business you run, and working closely with you, developing a banking plan that I am confident will kick-start your business to the next level.

Major points about John Marshall Bank:

  • A Northern Virginia-based community bank with assets of over $1B.
  • Corporate culture is “customer first.” Personal attention in all departments.
  • We have an A+ rating as one of the healthiest banks in the USA
  • As a community bank, our bankers live in, work in and enjoy the same community as you
  • Decisions are made locally and quickly, with all customers – no matter large or small – having easy access to top executives
  • We customized banking solutions to satisfy the needs of individual businesses and individuals
  • Our online and mobile banking products are robust and secure

Q. Thank you. Those are excellent points.  Now let’s talk about you.  List three words that best describe you and why. Yup, just three!

Debbie:  Persistent because I will not be content until my customer is satisfied with the products and services I have recommended;  Confident because I know our bank and my expertise will set us apart from any other bank in the area; Cordial because we will work together for the benefit of your business with a cordiality that will lead us to a long-term banking relationship.

Q. And to continue in that vein, tell me why you enjoy working with small businesses.

Debbie:  Small business, when supported by the right bank and other professionals like CPAs and lawyers, often grow into success stories.  I enjoy the challenge and the satisfaction of working towards that success with my customers.  There is nothing like participating in the success of a small business owner’s hard work and sacrifice.

Q. Great.  Let’s talk about the entrepreneurs you serve.  What is one entrepreneurial trait you like to see in clients you work with?

Debbie:  The ability to work together as a team to achieve a common goal.  I also like to see an entrepreneur who understands banking and the spreadsheets that bankers like to see as the business grows.  For those entrepreneurs who have a great idea and start their businesses, but don’t yet fully appreciate the importance of accurate bookwork, I enjoy the opportunity to work with them on their financial literacy goals.

Q. If you could give small business owners, specifically startups, your top three tips, what would they be?

Debbie:  First, get a banker you can relate to; one who gives you personal attention and who you can easily reach.  Your banker can be your best advocate and free consultant. Second,  though your banker can provide you with bank services, such as full reconciliation, hire a CPA, accountant or bookkeeper, who will keep your books straight and reconciled at least once per month.  This will benefit your business and your banking relationship, and you will have an easier time of it when April comes around.  Third, engage a lawyer and hope you never need to use their service.  In today’s litigious atmosphere, you just never know when you need to move fast, and it’s good to have a relationship already in place with a lawyer you’ve met and who understand you and your business.  A fourth tip is that I encourage companies to pay for adequate insurance with an umbrella policy that protects both your business and your personal assets.

Q. Conversely, will you share the top two mistakes you have seen startups make? We are hoping to save our readers a ton of pain!

Debbie:  Poor Bookkeeping/Cash Flow.  Poor cash flow management is the number one cause for depleted operating balances.  When balances drop and trigger overdraft lines to kick in, banks generally charge for non-sufficient funds.   By simply consulting with your banker, solutions to avoiding NSF fees can help businesses stay ahead of this asset drain and help to establish more reliable financial practices.

Hiring the wrong personnel.  I have seen fraud on business owners’ accounts by handing over full control of the bank accounts to an employee gone rogue.  Your banker can provide fraud prevention services to eliminate this risk.  However, the business owner should always stay involved in the finances.

Q. Debbie, I used to work as a court reporter and I can personally attest to your comments about fraud. Small business owners think it will never happen to them, but it certainly can.  I love your suggestion of getting your bank involved with fraud prevention services to eliminate this risk.  

Now, on a lighter side, what one book/blog would you recommend small business owners read?

Debbie:  Live Free or DIY by Justin Crawford.  This book is perfect for the small business owner pressed with too many things to do and faced with too little time.  Live Free or DIY reveals the obstacles small business owners face in every industry, and reveals how to overcome the challenges of entrepreneurship.  The book walks the reader through budgeting, time management, work-life balance, how to build a team and how to grow your business.

Q. Debbie, thank you again for sharing your time and expertise to help small business owners! If our readers would like to get in touch with you, please let them know the best way to reach you.

Debbie:  I can be reached on my cell or email, at 571-447-3919 or [email protected]. You may also visit the Business Banking website page for John Marshall Bank.