Coverage of this session by Sharon Gilmartin of Connect with her by following her on Twitter.

3:50 —’s Lauren Clevenger introduces¬†Darden’s Director of Brand Building Public Relations,¬†Justin Sikora.

3:51 — Justin shares that six months ago, the team did a pilot to revamp its social presence, and he will share their findings today.

3:53 — The first finding: people love breadsticks! But of course, breadsticks cannot be an entire social strategy. Previously, the brand marketing team went through a third party to push out material to the branches. The team decided that wasn’t working — beyond driving buzz, they just needed to start talking. They went through five steps to accomplish that.

3:55 — Justin says that the first thing they did was shift ownership from the marketing team to public relations. The ownership had to be with a team that was comfortable talking about a wide range of topics, from wages to breastfeeding in restaurants.

3:57 — The next step was to embed the community managers from the agency to the company headquarters. That put the structure in place. Third up was to partner with guest relations — this was harder to accomplish. To get guest relations on board, public relations brought them on early, made them a part of the decision-making process, championed their skill set, and gave them all the credit.

3:59 — Justin notes the fourth step of the pilot process: to get themselves on the office map. The team needed to be seated in the center of what was happening in the enterprise. And to disrupt everything — they put themselves in the middle of finance! It was incredibly successful in growing the team’s support amongst staff. Conveniently, the team also sat right near the President and the EVP of Operations.

4:01 — Step five of the pilot was adjusting the focus. Justin’s team redefined their “on” time, evolved their content, refined their approach to paid, and moved listening and talking to the top of the to-do list. Talking came first, and the focus went from how can social benefit the company to how can the company use social to the guests’ benefit.

4:03 — Justin shares the quantitative results after the pilot; there were positive results across the board. The biggest way it came to life was through guest recovery. Previously, many guests left the restaurant unsatisfied. A recovered guest is an unsatisfied guest who will now come back in and try again.

4:05 — Justin says other successes came from their education and advocacy efforts. For example, they engaged with the gluten-free community to both educate them and recover them to become advocates for the brand. Surprise & Delight, as well as Influencer Outreach, were two more areas where the new strategy helped the team shine. For example, Olive Garden responded to a tweet about receiving breadsticks at Twitter headquarters, and received massive positive attention as a result.

4:07 — Justin notes that the HR and training impact is his favorite piece of the new program. While they put guests first, the unintended positive consequence on their team members is huge.

4:09 — Operational insights are also key products of the new program. Thanks to social feedback, the team identified an issue where guests weren’t getting those delicious after-dinner mints.

4:10 — Justin reminds us, “When all else fails, bring them breadsticks!” And, to surprise and delight the crowd, Justin brought breadsticks!


Q: Can you tell us more about your experience with the Facebook publishing garage?

A: It’s very much a marketing tool for them, so it was built on their needs for the space (content), and not necessarily our needs for putting guests first. We need to be able to respond to guests within hours or minutes, and their timeline was not in line with that.

Q: I loved your quote about it not being that you didn’t care, but that you didn’t have the staff to care. How did you get the staff?

A: When an issue breaks out, everybody disappeared, and I was the PR guy responding (with no responsibility over social media). It just became increasingly evident that we were vapid when it came to responding. Also, partnering with guest relations was huge in setting up staffing because it wasn’t a territory grab and we all shared responsibility.

Q: Did you get pushback from other departments?

A: Absolutely. But my take has been, “Let me do this, and if it fails, it’s on me.”

Q: Could you tell us more about your Surprise & Delight efforts?

A: It really depends. Guest relations can be either complaint- or opportunity-based. For example, if someone tweets that they’re heading to Olive Garden for a birthday, we will let the manager know and have a surprise waiting for them. Any way that showcases who we are as a brand that moves our equity forward, we’re game.

Q: How often do you take a conversation off-line?

A: We often take things to a one-on-one conversation. It helps us interact with our customers individually.

Q: What are your top learnings from the first time you tried this?

A: I wish we had been a little more hard-nosed with the content, and I would have staffed the team more strongly for content. The next step for us is to get our team members involved, and we hope to evolve in that direction.

Q: How are you measuring sentiment?

A: We don’t measure it all the time. That’s one of our next steps — to measure that more aggressively. We track it with something we want to learn more about or when we see a trend emerging. But it’s definitely a very manual process.

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