The News, Covered and Smothered 24-7

News never sleeps. That also applies to the newsmaker and newsgatherer today. In my very early days as a cub TV reporter I learned to sleep with a police scanner on because the biggest stories seemed to break in the wee hours, mayhem, murders, fires or major traffic accidents. One pro tip—your subconscious probably isn’t sharp enough to recognize police ten-codes while you are asleep, but your brain does register emotion. When something newsworthy is happening, you can tell by the tone of the dispatcher and first responders’ voices.

Social media has made today’s 24-hour news cycle even more of a reality. The news media was once limited by printing press deadlines (the quaint idea of morning and afternoon papers). With the onset of digital media not only have broadcasters scrambled to offer news around the clock, the trend has forced a revolutionary response in public relations. Speaking to the Atlanta chapter of PRSA, Pat Warner, Director of PR and External Affairs for Waffle House had very interesting insights about how his privately held restaurant chain has responded to the 24-hour news cycle, which is underlined by the fact that because Waffle House never closes. For 24-hour businesses, the news clock also never stops.

Waffle House has evolved a masterful social media strategy over the years. During the last Super Bowl in Atlanta, the restaurant chain achieving 1.5 billion social impressions over the Big Game weekend alone. This was helped no doubt by the proximity of the Waffle House to Centennial Olympic Park and Mercedes Benz stadium, but also the support of local celebrities (like Shaq choosing Waffle House as a caterer for his Fun House event) and Jamie Foxx’s Instagram stories. To reinforce its messaging, Waffle House’s internal communications keeps individual restaurant managers informed via email. because they are the ultimate brand ambassadors.

With 1950 restaurant locations and its ubiquitous yellow sign and shoebox design, Waffle House doesn’t rely on advertising so much because its stores are its billboards. Each location takes a very hyper local approach in outreach, relying heavily on word of mouth. Social media is just another form of word of mouth to them.
FEMA even has an unofficial weather barometer called the Waffle House Index to gauge hurricane damage—if Waffle House is still open, it’s a sign the damage isn’t bad; if Waffle House is serving a limited menu, the water is rising, and if Waffle House closes, it means it is time to evacuate. Pat Warner and his team have shrewdly leveraged the Hurricane Index to make for engaging content marketing. Most of Waffle House’s social strategy is reactive as opposed to proactive. They do not rely heavily on paid media (unlike say, IHOP). Instead, they join online conversations when appropriate and build off unplanned events, like the guy who made his own dinner at
Waffle House late at night because the staff had fallen asleep. Waffle House immediately moved to offer him a job since he knew how to cook (and since that Waffle House was about to have some openings).

Maybe a decade ago, traditional media led social media. Now with the 24-hour news cycle, stories begin in the social media realm and ripple into traditional media. Social isn’t the caboose any more, now it’s driving the train. That means communicators have to be on their toes around the clock. If they get hungry on the job at any hour, Waffle House will be ready for them.