When Breastfeeding becomes your PR disaster

OK, this one is a ‘mini-post’ to ‘get the subject off my chest’ – yes, pardon the pun.

On the news yesterday we heard of a mother who was approached by a staff member at a council-run public swimming pool, because another swimmer was uncomfortable with this lady breastfeeding her baby at the poolside. The mother was embarrassed & humiliated and chose to leave the pool. To her defence, she stated that she was supervising her other children who were still in the pool. It’a also against the law to discriminate against breastfeeding mothers in public places.

I don’t like confrontation myself, and I would have done exactly the same thing – left. She had a right to feel upset and now it’s hit the national news and turned into a breastfeeding in public debate.

To me, it feels a little like a time warp that we’re even having this conversation. Again. But I’m not going to tackle that side of the story. I’m going to talk about the staff.

The council-run pool had a couple of opportunities here. The first was training their staff before the event. Teaching them what they should and shouldn’t do, what the law is, how to handle customer complaints. We don’t know if that was done or not. The second was the staff member involved. Did they talk to a supervisor before approaching the mother, to check it was ok or not? We don’t know. It’s not even reported that the staff member asked the woman to leave or to cover it. She may have just said that someone else had complained. That would make me uncomfortable enough to leave, even though I had a legal right to stay.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see what should have been done. The staff member should have said to the compaining person ‘I’m sorry you’re uncomfortable but she has a legal right to feed her baby here” and left it at that. Perhaps the staff member was a peace-maker who thought any confrontation would be calmed by quietly mentioning it to the mother? We don’t know.

What we do know is the stunning amount of silence coming from any pool representative. No explanation, no public apology, no ‘we were wrong in how we approached this, breastfeeding mothers are welcome here’. Media silence. This is how you turn a complaint into a PR disaster.

Every complaint gives an organisation an opportunity to turn things around, but they can’t ignore it, especially when the media is involved. And if they sit on it for too long before speaking up, the public goes ‘oh well, now you’re just trying to save face because you’ve been bad-mouthed all over the news’.

The caveat on this is that I’m not a PR expert. But as someone passionate about business, my thoughts went into problem-solving mode. What went wrong? What should have been done then and straight after the incident?

There’s a Seth Godin-like lesson in this. Businesses, please talk to your staff this week about when you legally can ask someone to leave and about how they should handle a customer complaint.

And mums, keep feeding your bubs when they are hungry.


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