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Patriotism, Alzheimer’s and Public Relations

By May 23, 2016 October 27th, 2016 News & Viewpoints
United States flag backlit by the sun

My father-in-law, Sam, has Alzheimer’s disease. Any family who copes with this or similar challenges looks for those momentary bright lights that shine through on an otherwise dark situation. This is one of those moments – it also illuminates how even big corporations can do little things to connect with customers in powerful ways.

After a dinner out, Sam’s wife, Marie, posted this on Facebook for family and friends:

Many of you know my husband, Sam, has Alzheimer’s disease. Some days he is confused and doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. Other days are not so bad. This weekend we went to Red Lobster for dinner and Sam looked out the window and said, “Look at that flag.” The U.S. flag was all ragged and I said, “Oh my, that flag needs to be replaced. It is all tattered.” He said, “Yes, and it is also restricted. It should be flying free.”

He immediately asked the waitress to get the manager. She looked hesitant, as if he was going to complain about the service. When the manager came over, Sam very plainly explained the problem and she said she would get it replaced. Sam told me we should come back a few weeks later to make sure it had been replaced. Sam was in the Navy from 1949-1953. He has been a very active member of our local VFW for 60 years – 22 years of which he served as its commander. He loves his country and the flag! He wasn’t going to let a little thing like Alzheimer’s disease interfere with what he knew was wrong. You will not find a more patriotic man. I am so proud of him.

As it turns out, Sam and Marie did go back to the restaurant a few weeks later. The restaurant had not only replaced the flag, they also put it up on a brand new flag pole. It’s not clear if Sam remembered the original situation, but, as his wife observes, “Now the flag waves freely and looks beautiful. Mission accomplished!”

That might have been the end it, but the PR guy in me thought Red Lobster should know this story – so I emailed them. Their same-day response says a lot about the company and its culture. It also shows how good organizations should both act and communicate:

  • Do what you said you would do. Red Lobster said they would fix the flag and they fixed it (another harried manager might just have humored an elderly man, instead of following through on a promise given).
  • Go beyond the minimum. They did not just replace the flag, they erected a brand new flagpole and put up two more to also fly the state flag of Ohio and their corporate flag.
  • Give your organization a human face. I received a heartfelt note from a Red Lobster Guest Services representative who shared that her late father had Alzheimer’s and that the story gave her “a feeling of warmth and goose bumps all at the same time.” She also emailed Marie with a generous gift card and relayed how much the company “is humbled to know that despite his health concerns, Sam’s love for his country and its flag took precedence.” They also apologized for the condition of the original flag. To his family, such a poignant gesture from a large international company reaffirmed the good will of others while also reaffirming that Sam is still able to make a difference in his community.
  • Do right by people – and they will do right by you. The smart thing to do in public relations is also the right thing to do. Marie was very touched by Red Lobster’s fixing of the flag and overall response and she shared the story with others in her social networks (and you are also reading about it here). One of Marie’s friends also shared the story with a Library of Congress volunteer who documents veteran stories and he interviewed Sam about his military and VFW experiences for potential airing on local radio. Finally, we learned Red Lobster is sharing this story as a teachable moment for its employees via the company’s intranet.

Here is a case where a company’s response to a problem was swift, firm and – most importantly – genuine. It also generated positive PR for them. That’s how it should work.

John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm. The U.S. flag flies outside his home to honor his father, father-in-law and all military veterans (and their families) who serve and sacrifice to defend freedom.