Crisis Communication: Saving The White Lady

Long-running Auckland food truck The White Lady had a complaint made against its operation to Auckland Council regarding the behaviour of patrons. A compliance investigation saw its annual licence not renewed but only extended. As increasing demands for higher compliance were made along with the stated option of Council being “unable to renew” if expectations weren’t met, The White Lady sought the advice of media strategist Hamish Williams to see if they could rally support to their cause while not affecting a proactive relationship with Council. Here Hamish recounts the campaign to “Save the White Lady”.

When I talk about the “power of media” I think about what media produces that makes it so powerful. To my assessment, the answer is shared stories. These stories are the ones you ask friends if they heard about, talk to co-workers about what they think, and sometimes find yourself having a strong reaction to.

Being able to share these stories with the largest possible audience is what media does better than any other mechanism. It’s their business, and it’s why people come to their various platforms. When applied, a strong media strategy that’s focused on a stated goal or outcome can utilise this mechanism to deliver shared stories to change lives, influence decision-makers, and rally support to a cause.

The most important thing when hearing what you think might be a potential shared story is to ask the question: Is it true?

To be able to represent The White Lady in the way required, I needed to be sure this was neither a misunderstanding between two parties nor an overreaction.

After what I would categorise as an emotional charged meeting with Max Washer I needed to confirm the facts before proceeding. Max is the third generation of the Washer family to run The White Lady, which had only ever been owned and operated by the one family since it opened in 1948.

I quickly established that there were irrefutable grounds for Max to feel threatened by Auckland Council. They had what he wanted, a 12-month licence renewal, but kept extending his licence by a few weeks at a time, allowing them to assess his current level of compliance.

Max felt powerless to do anything other than what Council asked, but the pressure on the business was mounting as uncertainty led to assessing all outcomes including non-renewal, which Council confirmed was an option.

Not knowing where to turn for help for fear of an unintended negative outcome, Max was open to me developing a strategy for him with the aim of seeing his 12-month licence renewed.

Determining the strategy

Nuance and deft handling of anything said publicly was paramount to retain goodwill with Council. Timing too was critical. A mix of patience and haste would need to be applied at the right times, or the entire story would run the risk of not landing with any gravitas. It would turn out that our timing was exceptionally lucky on a global scale.

Before we began we established some overall guidelines for the campaign:

•         No aggression towards Auckland Council.

•         Stick to the facts; avoid opinion.

•         Create the opportunity for advocacy from independent third parties.

•         Look to create a mutually beneficial outcome for all involved.

The White Lady had already been preparing a retrospective piece with The Sunday Star Times as part of general marketing initiatives before the Council issues had intensified. It was asked whether this should be scrapped in favour of sharing the compliance issue story.

I advised to keep the retrospective as a non-contentious piece to evoke people’s memories of The White Lady; as a chance to reminisce and look favourably on the past. The article ran on the last Sunday in June and was well received, especially online.

The media paid attention

Over the next few days I worked with a SST journalist to review the correspondence between Max and the compliance department of Auckland Council. There was clearly a story to be told.

As part of a multi-media piece SST wanted to produce a video component for its digital platform, Stuff. The video was overwhelmingly emotional and I realised quickly that Max had zero ability to regulate his emotions when dealing with media. This would become a critical part of the success of the campaign.

The first story covering The White Lady’s issues with Council was released on the first Sunday in July to a generally supportive but heated response online, but I knew I needed to create more traction.

I pitched it to all the major news radio stations that same afternoon and by early evening had primetime spots secured for Max.

The messaging was clear: Stick to the guidelines and don’t be afraid to share your emotions.

This was a really important aspect of Max’s interviews because of how honest and real it was. The audible shaking in his voice conveyed the magnitude of the situation as he was experiencing it. Rather than train it out of him I reassured him that by bringing this level of honesty to his media opportunities he was giving people a chance to empathise with him.

By midday that day the story had been published on multiple news websites and public support had come from the CEO of Auckland’s Heart of the City, City Councillors, and the MP for Auckland Central.

It became a talkback topic for an hour on NewstalkZB, with people from all over Aotearoa sharing fond memories of the food truck and their desire to see it given the support required to continue.

The response online numbered in the thousands of comments, shares and likes.

All of the coverage raised questions around Council decision-making and why the operation was held responsible for its patrons when it didn’t serve alcohol – but not once did those messages come from Max.

Following an appearance on TV1’s Breakfast show on the Tuesday, Max publicly thanked people for their support.

Later that afternoon Auckland Council issued a public statement that cited public discussion on the issue and stated this had “become confused” and was “denigrating a hard-working team of compliance officers.”

A three-month licence had been granted until the end of September to work through the issues, and with public attention established as well as the pledge for support from elected members and representative bodies it was felt there was a enough goodwill to see the desired outcome of a renewed 12-month licence achieved.

And so the coverage came to a close, with the expectation of consistent goodwill from all involved. It was time to let the process follow its course.

But it wasn’t to be.

Despite repeated written requests to establish a timeline where a decision would be made regarding the licence, no answer was given. After what was thought to be a productive meeting with Auckland Council on 1 September, a letter was received the following Tuesday morning with no further commitment as to what was required for a decision or when one might be made.

The White Lady had only 24 days left on its trading licence.

Max now faced an uncertain future and the clock was ticking. I needed to re-engage the largest audience I could to get traction on the issue once again. The story had now evolved from “threat” to “imminent closure” if nothing happened.

I supplied the letter that Council had issued that morning to media outlets to confirm the position in which The White Lady now found itself.

That night Max fronted on TV1’s Seven Sharp, issuing a public plea that in accordance with the letter, people not litter around The White Lady and not create congestion on the footpath. Failure to manage these issues would see its licence not renewed and imminent closure in 24 days.

The response was massive.

The next morning Max was featured live on TV3’s AM as well as the radio juggernaut that is NewstalkZB’s Mike Hosking Breakfast show. Again the non-aggressive plea was made that people help The White Lady comply with Council expectations, there were now only 23 days left on the licence.

The outpouring of support, as well as questions related to Auckland Council’s handling of this process, continued on social media and in radio and online coverage during the day.

Three men standing in front of a white foodtruck, smiling. Another man is standing inside the food truck.

Above: Hamish Williams (L) with The White Lady crew.

Late on the same day (Wednesday) an email came from Auckland Council confirming that it would be issuing a 12-month licence for The White Lady.

As ecstatic as all involved were, we felt we owed it to Council to pour water on the story. The White Lady and the Washer family needed to continue a working relationship with Auckland Council, and with all the attention to its plight and subsequent public appeal, it was time to let the good news reign.

Some quick text messages to TVNZ’s Breakfast show saw the show’s producers very kindly find space in the schedule to accommodate the exclusive announcement of the fate of The White Lady on the Thursday programme.

A press release was prepared for the morning, outlining the Council’s decision to renew and thanking Council for “believing that our little business has a place in this great city.”

With the TV opportunity secured I decided it was time to put a smile on Max’s face, which had been filled with much stress and anxiety over the past months; I concocted a surprise.

While live on air one of the campaign’s supporters, Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick, arrived on camera to present flowers to Max and congratulate the community for coming together to support what they valued, The White Lady.

Decision time

The decision was reported as news on every radio station bulletin across the country, in interviews on RNZ, TodayFM, in updates on the NZ Herald and Stuff sites, and in a report on Newshub’s 6pm bulletin.

In every instance Max thanked his family, staff, all customers past, present, and future, and Auckland Council, which issued its own update later that day.

The next morning, the death of Queen Elizabeth II was reported.

Had this campaign been one day later there may have been no opportunity for The White Lady to use media exposure to aid and help solve its crisis, but it would seem that even Royalty was willing to wait till the situation was sorted and an Auckland icon could continue.

My final thoughts are that despite planning and long-term budgets, cities grow organically. Trends come and go, and we see businesses rise and fall with them. As a city like Auckland becomes bigger and more modern, it’s easy to see something as old-fashioned as a food truck, once prolific in the 50s and 60s around New Zealand, find itself out of step with its surroundings.

The difference here is that The White Lady wasn’t just selling food – it was dealing out memories. No one ever went to The White Lady to have a bad time; they went because they were hungry and they got what they came for every time, year after year.

The White Lady might hark back to an earlier time, but the campaign proved that it’s no less relevant than when it first opened and when you love a part of your city that much, you do everything you can to preserve it.

The White Lady will celebrate its 75th year in March 2023.

This article was contributed by Hamish Williams, a senior media strategist and broadcaster in New Zealand.  If you are a  business leader wanting to prepare for issues and crises, you might also be interested in our other blog posts.

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