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Surviving a social media scandal: Lessons from the mac ‘n cheese meltdown at UConn

Surviving a social media scandal: Lessons from the mac ‘n cheese meltdown at UConn

Real talk at a NACUFS session about what really happened after a viral video pushed dining services into the spotlight—and a new set of rules that came from the ordeal. Plus, get the recipe for the infamous jalapeño-bacon mac ‘n cheese.

It just wouldn’t go away. That was Director of Dining Services Dennis Pierce’s sinking feeling, day after day, as UConn Dining remained the white-hot focus of YouTube views, tweets, retweets, Facebook posts, late-night monologues and relentless media attention in the days and weeks following a student’s drunken confrontation with the dining staff over a dish of jalapeño-bacon mac ‘n cheese. 

While certainly never a good situation, alcohol-fueled incidents do happen on a college campus, and sometimes in dining halls such as at Union Street Market. But now, with most people carrying video cameras in their phones and a culture that’s always hungry for the next scandal, those incidents can take on a life of their own. 

IN THE CROSSFIRE: Dennis Pierce never imagined that UConn's jalapeño-bacon mac 'n cheese could become the center of controversy.

The UConn dining team learned this, and a slew of other valuable lessons, the hard way. The good news is Pierce and Culinary Operations Manager Robert Landolphi graciously shared those lessons (and the recipe too!) at an afternoon session at NACUFS’ annual meeting last week in Anaheim. 

Pierce played the YouTube video as the session started for those few in the audience (presumably from Living Under a Rock University) who hadn’t seen it. The video, which has been viewed 1.5 million times, is titled “UConn Drunk Kid Wants Mac ‘n Cheese.” That pretty much sums up the situation. The incident began when a student brought a 40-ounce bottle of beer into the dining hall, and when he was told he couldn’t enter, launched into an expletive-laced tirade that got physical. 

Throughout the cringe-worthy nine minutes it took for police to appear on the scene (more on that later), another student captured it all on film: the cussing, the pushing, the belligerent threats against staff members who tried their best to keep cool and eventually the student pinned to the floor by a chef and being led out by police, all the while ranting about the jalapeño-bacon mac ‘n cheese. An ugly incident, to be sure. Within hours, the YouTube video posted by the budding videographer had hundreds of thousands of views all around the world.

At that moment, a Sunday night, Pierce was asleep at home, blissfully unaware of anything out of the ordinary. He wouldn’t find out until later Monday morning, his answering machine lit up like a Christmas tree with messages from reporters all over the country.

That was one of the lessons learned during UConn’s social media crisis: Don’t let phone calls from the media be the first time your boss learns that your dining program is famous—or in this case, infamous. 

“He [Dennis] wasn’t happy,” Landolphi says, putting it lightly. 

The communications team got involved right away and staff were advised to direct media inquiries to a single spokesperson: Pierce, who used a prepared statement to answer all inquiries. 

Soon, the student, Luke Gatti, issued a video apology. Later, he was placed on probation and he no longer attends UConn. The national attention eventually died down, the public’s short attention span soon occupied by other news, other scandals. Meanwhile (silver lining alert!), sales of the infamous jalapeño-bacon mac ‘n cheese had gone through the roof. One intrepid reporter even filed a Freedom of Information Act request to force UConn Dining Services to share the recipe. Taking advantage of this, we share it with you here

Another silver lining from the incident is a new set of best practices now being used at UConn, devised to prepare dining staff for confrontations that might occur, and then how to respond via the media and social media in the aftermath. Here are some of the lessons learned:

  • When you find yourself in a situation that might escalate, make sure you have non-verbal and verbal instructions in place to communicate with another lead employee so authorities can be reached in a timely fashion. “I realize as you watch this video, you’re going, ‘Where’s the cops, where’s the cops?’ as it drags on for nine minutes,” Pierce says. That’s because no clear plan was in place. It turns out one employee, seeing what was happening, knew that campus security was in an office upstairs. So rather than calling, that employee ran upstairs, only to find the office empty. It’s better to have a clear signal, get a cell phone out and call either 911 or campus security.
  • Do not make physical contact with the individual if at all possible. Repeat simple instructions as in, “Please leave.” Repeat at least three times and attempt to move him toward an exit (something that the UConn employee in the video did).
  • Be aware of your actions/emotions. Assume that a crowd of customers watching means that you’re being recorded and that the video will be uploaded to social media.
  • If the individual is there with friends, get them to help you diffuse the situation and/or get their friend out of there.
  • If the person is inebriated, they won’t like to be told what to do. Offer choices instead: “Who can I call to come help you out?” Pierce adds: “In hindsight, [maybe there was] an option that we could have provided the mac ‘n cheese to go in an effort to de-escalate the situation?” (The student still would’ve been arrested in that scenario).
  • Immediately after the incident, write down everything that happened, including specific-as-possible times. Have other staff present to get a total picture of the event. 
  • Without waiting, contact your direct supervisor and the director of the department.
  • At least once a year, remind full-time employees and management staff who the department’s spokesperson is and who the point person in the communications department is. Remind them to direct media inquiries to these people.
  • Allow the office of communications to share a prepared statement with the media. In some cases, a pending investigation will make this statement limited and brief. It’s natural to want to share your experiences and to set the record straight on social media platforms when you’re involved with an unsettling incident, but resist the urge as an employee. 
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