The Red Hen Incident: Operating in the Age of Weaponized Online Reviews

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Update: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, father of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, alleged that the Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson followed and harassed his daughter after she asked her to leave her restaurant. Mr. Huckabee made this claim during an interview on The Intelligence Report with Trish Regan. So far, this claim has not been substantiated by the restaurant owner or the White House press secretary.

Unless you’re the type of person who is disciplined enough to ignore political news, you’ve read or heard about what went down at the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, over the weekend. To recap, restaurant owner Stephanie Wilkinson 86ed White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.

By all accounts, Wilkinson kicked out Sanders in as polite a manner as one can eject a guest. As several news outlets—mainstream and otherwise—have reported, Wilkinson is a self-professed non-confrontational person. When her staff alerted her to the fact that Sanders and 7 of her family members had entered farm-to-table restaurant the Red Hen, Wilkinson headed to the business.

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Upon her arrival, she gathered her staff and asked them to weigh in on how they’d like her to handle the situation. According to reports, Wilkinson acted in accordance to her staff’s wishes: she pulled Sanders aside to discreetly ask her to leave. Before making the request, Wilkinson told Sanders that “[the Red Hen] has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.”

For her part, Sanders didn’t argue or otherwise react in a hostile manner; she simply gathered her things and walked out of the restaurant. The rest of Sanders’ party followed her—politely and respectfully—and Wilkinson covered the bill. Key words describing this restaurant owner-guest interaction are “politely” and “respectfully.”

Wilkinson showed respect to her staff, involving them in an important decision. She asked a guest to leave her establishment in a respectful way. And the guest who was asked to leave showed no disrespect toward Wilkinson. Polite. Respectful.

Of course, those words describe only what occurred in person between the parties involved in the situation. What’s happening online…that’s a different story. As we’ve all known for several years, the social contracts governing civility in our society aren’t enforced online.

The Red Hen’s Yelp and Facebook pages have devolved into a warzone of partisan bickering and attacks. As with other battlegrounds throughout human history, there has already been collateral damage. A critically acclaimed restaurant with a similar name, the Red Hen, an Italian-influenced restaurant in Washington, D.C., has been on the receiving end of completely groundless 1-star Yelp reviews and social media-based attacks. Apparently, the need for vengeance surpasses the need to ensure the target of retribution is the correct one.

This situation has made some things crystal clear. First, the hospitality industry is not free from the grip of politics. Sure, many operators are aware that they need to nurture local, state and even some federal political relationships to thrive. But it’s becoming apparent that bar, restaurant and nightclub operators can find themselves walking political minefields they likely never thought they’d have to navigate when they entered this business.

Read this: Causes and Effect: Do Bar Ownership and Politics Mix?

Second, making your brand’s values known to the public can be a gamble. Most operators probably already understand this point. Of course, a venue doesn’t need 100 percent of a community’s support to succeed, and most (if not all) of this industry's consultants and experts encourage operators to share their values with their employees and guests. However, it’s wise to understand that it seems every word uttered or posted and every action taken today can be twisted to fit a partisan agenda, locally and nationally.

Read this: A Core Value Walks Into a Bar

Which brings us to the third point. In the age of tribalism, partisan hostility, perceived incivility and so-called “fake news,” are online reviews trustworthy anymore? If not, how can they be considered relevant to this industry any longer? If they’re not relevant, do operators still need to be concerned about negative reviews? When a Red Hen Incident occurs, should review sites and social media channels have a policy in place to lock review profiles until things settle down, essentially putting everyone on “timeout” until they’ve had time to cool off?

The answers are not, unfortunately, cut and dry. Because review sites can be misused so effortlessly (as evidenced by partisan activists having reportedly encouraged people to attack the Red Hen’s Yelp page), operators find themselves at the mercy of rabid, easily incited online mobs. They must rely on the public’s ability to parse brutal and glowing reviews alike, identifying what’s fake and what’s real. And if the past couple of years have taught us anything, this type of analysis is often thrown to the wayside in favor of blind loyalty to whatever supports someone’s chosen “side.”

Both Red Hen restaurants, the one Sanders was asked to leave and the unrelated eatery, were barraged with a tsunami of 1-star and 5-star reviews. The Washington, D.C.-based Red Hen attempted damage control, sending out a tweet to clarify that they were not the restaurant Sanders had visited and been asked to leave. 

When I visited their Yelp page, I read this note at the top: “This business is being monitored by Yelp's Support team for content related to media reports.” I also encountered this popup:

Yelp Active Cleanup Alert popup

As of the time of publishing this article, the Red Hen in Virginia has more than 15,000 Yelp reviews and an average rating of 1.5 stars. The same note and popup as those on the D.C. restaurants page are on the Virginia venue’s. But the thousands upon thousands of negative reviews are still on the Red Hen’s Yelp profile.

Every action has consequences, and one of them is now the public encouragement by partisan activists and political figures to weaponize review sites. Sanders used her official Twitter account to tweet about the Red Hen Incident, something some experts say is against the law and an ethics violation.

The President of the United States has even entered the fray, tweeting what can very easily be construed as an attack on Red Hen. This is an interesting development when one considers that the current administration supports the right of a company to discriminate against certain people, as evidenced by Sanders stating that the White House was “pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision” to rule in favor of a baker in Colorado who refused to bake a cake for the marriage of a same sex couple.

What is an operator who reportedly acted politely and respectfully, exercising their right to refuse service “to any person for any reason, unless the business is discriminating against a protected class,” supposed to do when even POTUS slams them online? What, if any, are the responsibilities of review sites and social media platforms to address a Red Hen Incident? What policies should they have in place and how quickly should they be implemented? Do they bear any responsibility for confirming a reviewer has actually visited a business in order to leave a review? The businesses being reviewed online appear to have much less protection and support from review sites than the reviewers; does that not represent a credibility issue on the part of these review services?

After the seemingly simple action of a restaurant owner asking a guest to leave, all we’re left with for this industry is endless questions. Let us know what you think of this incident as an owner, operator, manager, bartender or server via our Facebook or Twitter channels.