Before USA Today and the U.K. Daily Mail, before Huffington Post and Gawker, Mike Brown’s story about how his friends and family were treated at a local restaurant was a Facebook post.

Crisis communication tips

Ashley T. Caldwell, founder of Modern Connection, a Charleston social media marketing company, offers these tips for businesses:

1. Have a crisis communication plan in place as part of your social media policy so you’re not scrambling when a situation arises.

2. Remember that even though social media is digital communication, you’re still dealing with people. Be authentic and respectful.

3. Be transparent and admit when you’re wrong.

4. It’s better to over-communicate than stay silent. Keep your community in the loop and make sure the voice is consistent.

5. Consider creating a hashtag for the crisis to keep communication very open and transparent.

6. Respond immediately to every comment or concern with a positive tone.

7. Remember that you can’t please your customers 100 percent of the time. How you respond to a negative customer speaks more about you and your business than anything.

8. Do not use your business page to express personal opinions. And never insult a customer no matter what they did or didn’t do.

9. Remember, what goes online, stays online.

10. Don’t be afraid to be human.

“I will never go to Wild wings cafe in N. Chs again!” Brown, who is black, wrote on his page before describing how his party of 25 was refused service because, he said, a white person felt threatened by them.

More than 3,000 Facebook shares later, the story was picked up by a local TV station, then by outlets across the country and around the world, sparking public outrage amid accusations of racial discrimination.

Wild Wings has issued an apology and offered Brown a free meal, but people continue to post angry comments on the company’s Facebook page.

“This is just another example of how the customer has a much louder voice than they used to have,” said Doug Ferguson, a communications professor at the College of Charleston.

Gone are the days — say 10 years ago — when gatekeepers such as journalists and businesses decided what made headlines because the public didn’t have the resources to get their message out.

“The story happens first and the journalists have to figure out if they’re going to run with it,” Ferguson said of today’s climate. “They almost have no choice because the story grows so big.”

Social media is a double-edged sword for businesses that can benefit by communicating directly with their customers. But they also face immediate blowback when their attempts go awry.

McDonald’s learned that last year when it invited patrons to share their fond experiences with the chain on Twitter, only to have haters post revolting stories about the food. Applebee’s also took some heat this year when the chain fired a St. Louis waitress who had bad-mouthed a customer online after he left a poor tip.

Ashley T. Caldwell is founder of Modern Connection, a Charleston social media marketing company that typically speaks for its clients on social media. One of the first things her company does is customize a crisis communication plan for clients that anticipates every possible situation.

“How you handle negative reaction shows more about your business than anything else,” Caldwell said.

Brown’s story

The furor over Wild Wings started when Brown and his friends gathered for a going-away celebration at the chain’s Rivers Avenue restaurant on July 31.

Brown said he and his party had been waiting in the restaurant’s lobby for about an hour when they had a run-in with two white women who attempted to maneuver their way through the crowd to get to the hostess’ counter.

One of the women stepped on his sister-in-law’s foot and cursed at her, he said. Then, without explanation, the hostess seated those women first before Brown’s party, he said.

Brown’s sister in-law, 28-year-old Chelsea Green of North Charleston, said their group continued to wait for another hour before a manager told them that they weren’t being seated because the two women complained that they felt threatened.

“They should have given us the option to leave and go to another restaurant instead of making us wait around for nothing,” Green said. “It was embarrassing because they made us look like we’re a bunch of criminals.”

Brown said the group complained to a manager, but that woman grew irate when she noticed that they were filming the incident on their cellphones. A bouncer was called to the lobby and the group was escorted out of the restaurant. Brown said he and his group felt race was a factor in how the situation was handled.

Going viral

After his complaints to Wild Wings’ corporate office went nowhere, Brown said, he decided to post his story on Facebook, and the episode took on a life of its own.

As word of the situation continued to spread on social media, the restaurant posted messages on its Facebook page responding to the complaints, including a Sunday statement saying senior management is “incredibly saddened and regretful about all that has happened in this unfortunate situation.”

“We are truly disappointed and sorry that any guests of ours felt disrespected or discriminated against,” the statement read. “Our ownership group, home office staff and restaurant staff represent the diversity that our great country is made up of and these accusations do not reflect our values. We can assure you that we will not tolerate any discriminatory behavior in our organization.”

Green said she is not satisfied with the restaurant’s attempt to make things right, and she isn’t interested in a free meal or coupons. “They need to know that they’re wrong,” she said. “They need to get trained on how to properly handle situations like this.”

Ferguson, the communication professor, said the episode shows it is best in most instances to let an aggrieved customer vent, then ask what you can do for them. Offering the upset customer something without hearing them out will likely make them angrier, he said.

Caldwell’s advice on how to respond on social media is to take a step back and remain calm, respond in a timely manner, then try to take the conversation off-line and resolve it there, without a lot of back-and-forth. But to avoid social media altogether means you are not a part of the online conversations about your business that are going to happen with or without you, she said.

“You just have to kind of accept that it has the potential to become viral,” she said.