The past few months have seen a flare up of racist incidents in South Africa, mainly Cape Town. Many involve vicious white on black attacks and the alleged perpetrators will hopefully feel the full wrath of the law in the justice process. Less violent – but no less insidious – is the steady stream of complaints of racism leveled against various restaurants and hotels. These often don’t make it to our criminal courts – although the SA Human Rights Commission is dealing with some – but they do attract widespread attention on social media.
Two such incidents recently exploded on to my Twitter feed: Azure at the 12 Apostles Hotel (Cape Town) and Spetada Restaurant (Joburg). Rather than rehash the outrage that many (including me) have expressed, I’ve looked at them from a different perspective, comparing how they played out from a PR angle.
On 29 December, Martina Philcox blogged about the racist treatment a friend of hers experienced at Azure – an inability to book a table with a ‘black sounding’ voice when Martina easily got a table for the same night; ill-treatment of the party of six when they arrived, and a waitress’s insulting behaviour towards the group.
The blog went viral on social media and many people tweeted the hotel asking for their comment. Their silence was deafening – and, to me at least, astonishing. After all, they chose to communicate with the public via these platforms.
Eventually, on 4 January they tweeted, “We have zero tolerance to racism or any form of discrimination. The matter has the full attention of management to be resolved amicably”, followed on 5 January by, “#12Apostles committed to ensuring ALL guests are welcome. Saddened & shocked that reservation error on our part is interpreted as racism.” Also on 5 January they issued a statement, which they posted almost word for word as a comment on Philcox’s blog. Unsurprisingly, they concluded it was all a big reservation error on their part.
Dissatisfied with this terse and tardy response that ignores the direct rudeness of the waitress, Philcox, in a follow-up blog post, rejected their weak excuses and suggested that a more appropriate response would have been a letter addressed to the offended patrons apologising unreservedly for the “hurtful and insensitive and hurtful way” they were treated. She composes the letter she believes they should have sent, which acknowledges that the patrons could have perceived the incident as racist and promises to raise awareness at the hotel of “our own underlying racial bias”.
It’s a pity they chose to ignore this advice, standing or falling by the one statement and the two tweets. This was clearly a PR decision on their part. I asked Janie van der Spuy of Fivestar PR, which represents the hotel, why they didn’t engage more with the public via social media.
“The hotel’s social media is handled in-house and the strategy was to issue a single statement to explain the unfortunate misunderstanding around an alleged racism incident,’ said Van der Spuy. “We responded to all media enquiries individually with the same statement that outlined the facts. The decision was made to not respond to comments and threats within public social media forums. However, all direct enquiries/emails to the hotel were responded to individually. The hotel GM … has been in regular contact with the guest who first raised the incident, in an effort to resolve the matter amicably, including inviting her and her party back to the hotel.”
A show of genuine remorse on their part, coupled with a well publicised plan to train their staff in dealing with customers in a sensitive way, would have have gone a long way to restoring this social media user’s faith in the hotel. A carefully worded statement used as a shield against all forms of inquiry feels woefully inadequate. And I’m not advocating engaging with trolls. But these weren’t trolls; these were patrons and prospective patrons who wanted the hotel’s reaction.
Spetada restaurant in Rosebank has no Twitter account and a static Facebook page. On 31 December, Karabo Lediga ate there with a group of friends, one of whom found a cockroach in their food. Far from apologising for this unforgivable breach of hygeine, the manager accused them of placing the roach in the food and told them “all black women need a f—k” and asked them to “get the f—k out of” his kitchen. Stunned, they paid in full for their meal – no discount was offered and they’d been told by the frightened waiters that they’d had to pay out of their own pockets when patrons refused to pay – and left.
As the restaurant has no active social media page, they tagged the Facebook page in a post on the incident and wrote a scathing review on Trip Advisor. Although owner Paul da Silva has responded to complaints on this forum before, these friends have heard nothing from him. Surprising, really, as their version of the story paints him in the worst possible light – as an outright racist and sexist. They have laid a complaint with the South African Human Rights Council, which informed them via email that it is investigating the matter.
I hope Da Silva is made to pay for his appalling behaviour. But I’m really angry that not having an active social media presence with which angry members of the public could engage seems to have helped keep this story from getting the attention it deserves. (It had far less Twitter traffic than the 12 Apostles despite the fact that Da Silva is accused of blatant racism and sexism.) Without a Twitter account or an interactive Facebook page, there is no hook on which the public can hang their indignation. And so, often, the public outrage dies down sooner than it would have.
The public demanded answers of the 12 Apostles, which they eventually provided almost a week later in the form of a carefully composed statement. But their failure to deal with the matter more quickly, honestly and openly on social media – a tweet when the storm broke letting us know they were taking it seriously would have gone a long way – was unforgivable.
Although, maybe their PR strategy ultimately worked: they succeeded in taking the matter out of the public eye, which is exactly where a PR agency wants it.
Caryn Gootkin is the owner of In Other Words. She is a lawyer, copy editor, plain language practitioner and writer.
IMAGE: Azure Restaurant/12 Apostles website.
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