By Sheridan Orr
How can three employees, one smart phone and a social website throw a major company into crisis mode? You might want to ask Bryson Thornton, director of global communications for Burger King.
Thornton and his team have been doing damage control since a picture of an employee standing in lettuce went viral. The caption read, "This is the lettuce you eat at Burger King."
The photo was originally posted on the site 4Chan, an imageboard website that allows users to post and comment anonymously. The image outraged enough people on 4Chan that they used the photo's geotagging to identify the store as the Mayfield Heights, Ohio, location.
Soon social media was flooded with comments and shares and the franchise with calls from angry customers and inquiring media. By the time Burger King communications could spring into action, the picture had gone viral, and global news outlets were covering the story.
Rogue brand impressions
Brand strategists frequently define a brand as the emotional connection you create with your customer and the space that you occupy in their minds. It is impossible to think of how a picture of an employee standing in food about to be served to customers can create anything other than disgust. Therefore, the Burger King brand and the emotions created by this image are forever linked in consumers' minds.
Once the photo spread and Burger King corporate became aware of it, they immediately issued a statement, which said:
Burger King Corp. has recently been made aware of a photo that shows a Burger King restaurant employee violating the company's stringent food handling procedures. Food safety is a top priority at all Burger King restaurants and the company maintains a zero-tolerance policy against any violations such as the one in question.
While the statement is well worded, timely and reaffirms Burger King's policy on food safety, it cannot erase the image from customers' minds.
Brand, culture and employees
The modern reality is that people share even the most intimate details of their lives. Things that weren't said aloud 20 years ago are conversation starters on social media today.
A workplace prank can suddenly become a public relations nightmare. All it took to spawn the Burger King crisis was a simple image shared on one site.
While significant damage can be done to a brand through social media, there is no getting this genie back into the bottle. It has become the way in which Millennials or Gen Y prefer to communicate. In fact, many manage their lives though social media.
Progressive companies like T.G.I. Friday's have recognized that employees will share. Instead of trying to quash this with Draconian policies, they have embraced it and provided a positive, sanctioned outlet for dialogue and expression.
Fridoids is a site where Friday's employees can share stories about celebrities who visit their locations, tips for customer service and fun pictures that exemplify the culture. Moreover, the policy around this site is simply "don't do evil." Employees self-police and share in a way that embodies the Friday's culture and brand.
The reality is that companies can't silence employees. Instead, they need to provide positive outlets buttressed by a well-defined social media policy.
This may not stop rogue employees. However, many companies, like T.G.I. Friday's, are recognizing that building a positive culture of engaged employees who self-police is the way forward in a social sharing world. You can bet your Whopper that Burger King will be considering how they could have avoided this incident.
Sheridan Orr is the Managing Partner of the Interrobang! Agency, a consulting firm specializing in brand experiences. She has a decade of experience in consumer behaviors, brands, technology and design. Her passion is in crafting engaging and connected customer experiences.