Saturday, June 27, 2009

Assessing the Impact of a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit at a Metropolitan Restuarant

A popular metropolitan restaurant recently suffered the negative publicity of a sexual harassment lawsuit. The courts settled the suit in favor of the restaurant, but an interesting question is how would we measure the damage to the restaurants brand equity. Since I had our mandatory Fair Employment Practices training this week, it's an apropos topic.

Exploratory Research

Harris and Smith (2002, p. C1) define a crisis as any newsworthy event that has happened or will happen in the near future that has the potential for adverse publicity. The sexual harassment event associated with the Restaurant X satisfies their definition of a crisis. In his section on public relations, Duncan (2005, p. 563) says that this type of incident should be treated as a crisis because of the extreme impact it poses to Restaurant X’s “reputation and brand relationships.”

Lichtenstein, et al (2004, p. 29) reinforce Duncan’s premise by noting that corporate social responsibility strengthens brand equity and say its impact goes beyond sales. This means that a consumer perception of Restaurant X as an environment that condones sexual harassment will have a negative effect not only on sales. A reduction of brand equity will also result and with it there will be a consequent loss of owner equity. It is vitally important for Restaurant X to verify through marketing research the attitudes its publics harbor about the incident.

What type of survey research should be initiated

Management should already understand that negative publicity in general affects customer retention. They will want to know if their specific sexual harassment publicity is reducing their customer retention and sales. The goal of this marketing research should be to “shed light on [this specific] association or relationship,” which is how McDaniel and Gates (2008, p. 49) characterize a descriptive research design.

The basic method of research should be survey. McDaniel and Gates (p. 50) inform us that experiments are typically used only for causal research designs. Observation would be an inefficient approach to determine opinions and attitudes on the restaurant’s sexual harassment case because there is no direct interaction with the customer. Surveys are “an orderly and structured approach” to understand “opinions and attitudes.”

This research should be quantitative. Qualitative research is “not necessarily representative of the population of interest,” (see McDaniel and Gates, 2008, p. 110). Surveys are a good tool to find out what factors influence consumers (p. 142); in this case, did the publicity influence customer retention and sales. Of the various types of surveys, I recommend Computer-Assisted Telephone Interviews (CATI).


In this situation there is a tradeoff between turnaround speed, measurement error, and cost. CATI is the optimal strategy, with Internet Panels a close second. Johnson (2009, p. 2) notes that non-response bias is a significant source of measurement error. He also informs us that both telephone and mail surveys are subject to increasing non-response rates.

Thee (2007, p. 1) reports another problem with telephone surveys for the restaurant: because of the substantial use of cell phones, telephone sampling frames are no longer geographically based. On the other hand, the restaurant public is geographically bound. Thee goes on to say that households with only a cell phone numbered 16% in 2007 (p. 1) and this could grow to 25% by the end of 2008.

CATI can help here. McDaniel and Gates (p. 152) inform us that the computer can customize each questionnaire according to how the respondent answers previous questions. We could ask if they are currently in the metro area. If not and they have no intention of visiting the metro area, then we could close the interview.

McDaniel and Gates (p. 365) also report on a method for determining the extent of nonresponse bias. They cite two studies that suggest nonrespondents are not a clearly distinct subgroup from the general population. To find out for certain in this case, only a very small follow-up survey using nonrespondents as the sampling frame need be conducted.

Johnson (2009, p. 1) informs us that restaurants make frequent use of self-administered surveys. The reason they are not the best solution in this case, is that customers already lost to Restaurant X because of the lawsuit won’t be patronizing the restaurant anymore. In addition, a self-administered survey approach will not have the same quick turnaround as online techniques (see Johnson, 2009, p. 2).

Interviews such as door-to-door and executive would have little traction with the immediate needs of the restaurant. Mall intercept interviews would be too expensive, and in addition, McDaniel and Gates (2008, p. 172) say to avoid such an approach when the incidence rate is low because it will be too expensive. The number of patrons of Restaurant X is low compared to the total population in the metropolitan area.

Internet Panels have been used in other crisis management situations. Duncan (2005, p. 564) reports that McDonald’s setup a panel to protect its reputation from the fallout over a fraud perpetrated in its promotional games. McDaniel and Gates (p. 156) also discuss the advantages of panels. Johnson (p. 2) informs us that “companies like Survey Sampling” provide consulting expertise to “construct a sample to match the target population” and then rent a panel from their large database. Still, as Johnson (p. 2) observes “The internet population is not representative of the population as a whole,” and “Internet users are concerned with privacy and, thus, may refuse the survey.”

What topics should the survey cover?

First up is demographics such as gender, age, and race. The next topic would investigate level of awareness. It would be used to discover the news sources that informed the respondent about the lawsuit, as well as their knowledge about the particulars of the case, and knowledge about Restaurant X policies and training to prevent sexual harassment.

The third topic would be to determine their opinion about how Restaurant X handled the sexual harassment accusation. Duncan (2005, p. 563) says that for such a crisis it is a good idea to survey opinion about the company’s level of honesty, helpfulness, speed of response, clarity, and consistency of message.

The fourth topic would be to find out from patrons about their experience with the restaurant. Have they ever witnessed sexually harassing behavior at the restaurant? Has the staff been professional and courteous? The fifth topic would be to establish the factors that influence Restaurant X patron decisions to frequent a restaurant. An important aspect here is how did the sexual harassment lawsuit affect their opinion about Restaurant X and their willingness to be a customer? The sixth topic would be open-ended questions to find out their opinions about what further steps Restaurant X should take.

The survey population

The population is the existing, lost and potential customers of Restaurant X in the metropolitan area. With no further information from the restuarant advertising or news stories, I will assume that the entire metropolitan area should be viewed as potential customers. To focus only on existing customers would not discover the opinions of lost customers. Additionally it would exclude the only source of growth, new customers.

The sampling units and sampling frame

The sampling unit would be households because people tend to go to restaurants as a family or as a couple and not alone. The sampling frame should not be the telephone directory for the metropolitan area. McDaniel and Gates (pp 333-4) list the problems with the telephone directory including problems with unlisted numbers and their prevalence among non-whites and younger people. Instead random-digit dialing from phone exchanges in the metropolitan area will form our sampling frame.

Simple random sampling will be used to create our random-digit dialing frame. Johnson (2009, p. 3) notes that probability sampling, like simple random, gives the researcher a representative sample of the population. Specifically for simple random sampling, a computer can randomly select the sample and this is consistent with the CATI approach I recommend.

The sample size

The main difference between qualitative and quantitative research is sample size (see McDaniel and Gates, 2009, p.108). Managers are more “comfortable with marketing research based on large samples and high levels of statistical significance” (p. 109). Another factor that will affect our sample size is the required confidence level. Wilson and Ogden (2004, p. 56) say that

"Survey research requires at least a 95% confidence level and a margin of error of less than 5% to be actionable.”
Do we need to know the exact population size for the metropolitan area? Using a sample size calculator it quickly becomes apparent that after a certain point increasing population size by an order of magnitude does not increase sample size requirements by more than a single person or two. Creative Research Systems (2009, p. 1) provides a Sample Size Online Calculator that I used to calculate the following sample sizes:

(The calculator is at Creative Research Systems).

Given the gravity of sexual harassment allegations and the damage to brand equity, owner equity and ongoing sales, I recommend a sample size of 384.

Creative Research Systems (2009). Sample Size Calculator. Retrieved on June 17, 2009 from

Duncan, Tom (2005). Principles of Advertising and IMC. New York: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

Harris and Smith Public Affairs (July 3, 2002). Public Relations Handbook. Retrieved on June 10, 2009 from

Johnson, E. (2009). Quantitative Research: Surveys & Sampling. Retrieved on June 11, 2009 from

Lichtenstein, Donald R., Drumwright, Minette E. & Bridgette M. Braig (October 2004). The Effect of Corporate Social Responsibility on Customer Donations to Corporate-Supported Nonprofits. Retrieved on June 9, 2009 from

McDaniels, C and R Gates (2008). Marketing Research Essentials. John Wiley.

Thee, Megan (December 7, 2007). Cellphones Challenge Poll Sampling. NY Times. Retrieved on June 10, 2009 from

Wilson, Laurie and Ogden, Joseph (2004). Strategic Communications Planning, 4th Ed. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

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