Byron burger chain gets bitten

What restaurants can learn from the food industry’s latest PR crisis. By Georgina Parsons.

Founded in London nearly 10 years ago, Byron Hamburgers has long been the premium burger chain of choice for twenty-something hipsters and those with a taste for something a little bit stronger than your average Big Mac. Having grown exponentially in the last few years, Byron Hamburgers has built an impressive £100m valuation, and an (almost as impressive) 29,000 loyal followers on Twitter.

Yesterday, however, Byron lost the support of many of its fans, becoming embroiled in a PR crisis even bigger than its famous stacked beef burgers. After organising a supposed “health and safety” training day, Byron staff were shocked to find that the event was in fact a front for a Home Office immigration raid. Following mixed reports from journalists – amid radio silence from the company itself – it’s now estimated that around 35 Byron staff were arrested on breach of immigration laws, with many more set to follow suit for deportation.

As news of the arrests – and the disastrous handling by Byron – spread, Twitter exploded with angry messages aimed at the chain. According to stats from our media monitoring platform Visibrain, in the last 24 hours alone, Byron has received nearly 17,000 tweets commenting on the news, with the hashtag #BoycottByron being used over 8,000 times.

While one or two loyal supporters stuck with the brand and took to Twitter to defend its decision, the vast majority of tweets have registered as direct criticism of the company.

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From a purely crisis management perspective, it’s hard not to blame Byron for its poor handling of the situation. Not only was the nature of the arrests poorly managed, but the company’s response on Twitter has been virtually non-existent. Despite receiving over 11,000 tweets of complaint, Byron initially appeared to ignore the criticism, presumably in the hope that it might eventually just disappear.

Unfortunately, in the absence of any official company response, negativity online began to spiral out of control, eventually spilling over into the mainstream media. In the hours after the news broke, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mirror all covered the story, with each article adding further fodder for Twitter users to share and retweet online.

Having failed to take control of the story early on, Byron finally posted an official statement on Twitter – largely blaming the Home Office for the nature of the investigation and the raid. While this delayed response has finally helped to quell many of the questions previously left unanswered on Twitter – it’s hard not to consider this all too little and too late.

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Some Twitter users believe that there’s no such thing as bad publicity

Whether you agree with Byron’s decision or not, it’s hard to deny that the way in which the events unfolded provides an excellent PR crisis case study for other brands within the food industry to learn from.

Whether they’re embroiled in a national immigration scandal, or simply responding to someone who’s found a fly in their soup, brands need to have a strong presence on Twitter – ready to react to crises, or to simply engage with their fans. According to Visibrain’s research, one in every five PR crises break on Twitter, while 94% of them are at least spread using the platform. This makes Twitter both a vital asset and a dangerous foe for brands.

The only way to keep your business safe – and your reputation secure – is to make sure that you have a presence at the heart of things if and when a crisis breaks. This means both preparing a pre-emptive media plan, but also being willing to respond reactively when something goes wrong.

Byron had no plan – and ultimately – nothing to say when their loyal followers turned against them. Restaurants everywhere should learn a valuable lesson from this mistake, and should never underestimate the power of word of mouth – especially when it comes to Twitter.

Georgina Parsons is head of communications at Visibrain

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