On May 17, the Charlotte Observer published a story about North Carolina-based pizza chain, Brixx and its firing of an employee who insulted a customer on her Facebook page while invoking the company name. Since then, the Associated Press and Huffington Post have recirculated the story, which has since gotten thousands of comments and tweets.
If it's suffocation of free speech that has people buzzing, it's for naught: In fact, the employee, Ashley Johnson, went against the corporate policy she signed when first hired, according to concept owner Jeff Van Dyke.
Van Dyke said the social media dictate is part of the regular policies and procedures of working with the chain. It states that employees shouldn't give the impression that they represent Brixx as a company on their personal online outlets, nor say negative things concerning the chain in this realm.
"And in this particular instance, this server didn't get as big a tip as she had hoped, even though they tipped her 17 percent," he said. "And she posted some very negative stuff on Facebook and on a discussion page, and somehow that was sent back to a store, and it was a clear violation. She was let go."
The heated responses to this story have drawn more attention to existing corporate policies like Brixx's – and to the ones that do not yet exist. Restaurant chain executives are at different places in their development of such principles, grappling with the need to protect their brand versus potential negative buzz over restricting employees' speech.
Some pizza chains have already instituted eloquent policies regarding employees' use of brand names in their own social media spaces. Pizza Hut spokesperson Chris Fuller said the No. 1 pizza chain has a policy, and it's clear.
"(It targets) all employees and contains guidelines on being clear of Pizza Hut employment when posting through social media channels," Fuller said. "(It) also provides guidelines on tone and content (similar to guidelines for in-restaurant behavior)."
Not all high-profile chains, however, have yet to define their stance on the issue. They know it's important to try to monitor and control their brand names in the increasingly important online realm -- but also how that can backfire. To wit: The Brixx story has gotten 753 Facebook shares, 1,380 retweets and 1,784 comments on HuffPo since its posting May 17, and some of it is negative buzz.
Pizza Patron's brand director, Andrew Gamm, is aware of this double-edged sword. He said there's a policy in place to prevent franchisees from forging their own social media efforts on behalf of the brand, as that's handled corporately. But Gamm and the company are still trying to formalize a policy for how employees use the brand name on their social media spaces.
"We're trying to figure out what our exposure is," Gamm said. "The social networks aren't your typical marketing arena. You have this blurred area between personal life and free speech and trying to maintain the integrity of your brand â€¦ you can't really stop somebody from complaining if they have a bad experience, but at the same time, you want to make sure things out there are truthful."
The way forward
Perhaps nobody is better positioned to comment on this dilemma than Scott Baitinger, owner of Milwaukee-based pizza truck Streetza Pizza, whose business is largely driven by social media. His new book, "Twitterworks, Restaurant 2.0 edition," offers some sage advice for muddy waters.
The book includes "10 commandments" for operators to present to restaurant employees regarding their use of social media. In fact, commandment No. 2 speaks to the situation at hand. It basically says not to say anything bad about any aspect of your restaurant employer, its customers or employees. Such comments have an adverse effect on everyone.
Baitinger said outlining these rules are important, and need to fit with the rest of a company's culture.
But he believes banning employees from mentioning their employer in any form on social media outlets is a step in the wrong direction. On the contrary, he put forth Apple's corporate culture as an example. Their employees, he said, are basically brand extensions in their personal lives, which of course include their social media pages.
"Because you need the (employee) to be a representation of your brand, if you hired them," he said. "So social media is just an extension of the entire customer service experience."
Then Baitinger answered the $5,000 question: Would he have have fired Johnson? He said Brixx executives were reasonable to fire an employee in clear violation of policy, but hesitated slightly to say what he would have done.
"Probably not," he answered. "I probably would have had her deal with it on her personal space differently."