Where There’s Smoke There’s…4 Ways to React to a Fire

Posted By Mandi Lindner on May 13, 2014 | 0 comments

I work part time at a local coffee shop – both for the free coffee, human interaction (working from home is a lonely endeavor) and for some extra cash (we all have student loans to pay).

The other day we noticed an insidious smell of smoke, but couldn’t determine where it was coming from. Thinking it was just a heating element or an exhaust fan out of whack we all ignored it.

Half an hour later the smell became sharper and we soon noticed gray smoke pouring out of the ceiling vents.

This was a defining moment.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they react in an emergency. Here are the three major ways my coworkers reacted and what we can learn from it:

1. Freak the Hell Out

One of my coworkers immediately began to freak out when she saw the smoke coming in. She speculated wildly about the source of the smoke, loudly, and wondered, equally loudly and vocally, about what to do. She was lost. She felt in danger. And she became the epitome of customer service dead weight – her reaction scared customers, created more work for the rest of the staff, and made the situation more tense.

Has your brand faced an emergency lately? Maybe not something quite so tangible as a fire, but maybe a social media gaffe? A spokesperson deviating from the script? A product recall?

The absolute worst thing you can do is freak out. Your customers look to you to be the authority, they expect you to fix the problem – whatever that may mean (public apology, monetary refund, mechanical fix free of charge, etc), and they need you to remain in control. This is your show. If you’re not in control of it – no matter how far afield it flies from your original script, then your customers will panic right along with you.

2. Worry About Liability

When we saw smoke pouring out of the ceiling vents and quickly filling up the room one of my coworkers immediately began turning customers away from the door and helping those who had already been served leave safely. Whenever a fellow worker would ask what she was doing she would exclaim, “We need to get these people out of here because we’re liable for the smoke inhalation or if anything worse happens!”

Now, this may just be an instance of PR spin, but when there’s an emergency at your business you do not want to proclaim to the world that you’re only out to save your own ass. Yes your brand is important to protect, yes you may have shareholders to answer to in regards to the bottom line, but you also need to answer to the safety and security of the people who do business with you. The very human, valuable souls who trust you.

Sometimes it’s very clear when a brand is just paying lip service, isn’t it? That’s the thing about emergencies, suddenly the pretenses are dropped and you can get a vision of the core of a person (or brand).

My coworker was genuinely worried about the safety and health of our customers, there’s no doubt in my mind about that, but she expressed it in a way that made them feel objectified and as if she were only concerned with the company’s bottom line. It may be a simple matter of semantics, but it’s important to take a moment in an emergency to assess the situation, including the liability, and then react publicly in a way that assures your shareholders and clients that you have EVERYONE’S best interests at heart…not just your own.

3. Assess & Handle the Situation

The key to this reaction is remaining in complete control of the situation, of your reaction, and of the communication.

The landlord of the building the cafe is housed in happens to own the storefront right next door. Knowing it would be of immense concern that it was possibly on fire, one of my coworkers immediately went to her, pulled her aside from her own clients, and quietly and calmly made her aware of the situation. Because the truth of the matter is that none of us knew the truth of the situation. There were no flames, the smoke was not black or billowing into the cafe, and no one was in immediate danger.

The landlord came over to assess the hazy smokiness of the cafe, suggested we open every door and window we could to vent the place, and called her local handyman who informed her that one of the HVAC units on the roof had been acting up and the smoke was likely caused by that machine – not an actual fire.

In the meantime, staff helped customers box up their food and drink if they wanted to leave, doors were opened, fans were turned on, and business went on as usual once everyone calmed down and word was spread of the situation.

That last part is important.

In the first reaction clients look to you on how they should react. If you are panicking, no doubt they will panic, thus driving you into even higher throes of panic and stress.

In this instance there was no immediate danger and once everyone was made aware of this the panic subsided, momentary though it was.

Communication is key. In an emergency your clients look to you first and then they assess the situation for themselves. If you can provide the information they need for their assessments (i.e. remain in control) they will remain calm and their trust in your brand will hopefully solidify.

4. Ostrich Effect

During this emergency, knowing we may have a potential fire or at least the beginnings of one, one of my coworkers remained at her task and refrained from taking action. Maybe she thought the rest of us had it well in hand, but she reacted to the emergency by…not reacting.

When brands react to an emergency with silence I like to compare it to an ostrich hiding his head in the sand in the face of danger (yes, I know this is a myth…but it’s a stubbornly-believed behavior that serves us well as a metaphor).


Myth! Ostriches dig holes for their eggs, but do not suffocate themselves in the sand if/when they’re scared.

This does nothing to alleviate the danger, just your perception of it. Perhaps brands think that if they don’t say anything then no one will freak out, they won’t be held liable, and/or they won’t have to confront the situation since no one will know about it. What these brands fail to realize is that the truth most always comes out, even if it’s after the fact. We’re seeing this right now with General Motors. Hiding your head in the sand in an emergency helps no one. As a brand you have a duty to react when a situation arises, no matter how small.

The best way to react in an emergency, in my humble opinion, is to meet it head on. Yes, you have to couch your message in a way that is best for your brand, but you also have a duty to keep your customers informed so that they don’t panic. Above all, remain in control of the situation (or at least fake it until you make it) because if they see you panicking it will likely create an even more chaotic mess that you’ll have to clean up.

What do you think?