Burger King and PR guru highlight risks of setting out to be controversial on social media

March is shaping up to be quite the month for crisis communication case studies.

Already we have seen a high-profile horse racing trainer’s career disintegrate after a horrific picture emerged of him sitting on a dead horse.

Pontins also made headlines for using an ‘undesirables list’ that prevented people with Irish surnames from booking at its resorts.

Then there is the Royal Family and the Meghan and Harry interview.

And now two entirely self-inflicted, and strangely similar, crises have emerged.

Burger King and PR guru Gordon Beattie have both found themselves in the firing line for making provocative social media posts about sensitive subjects.

Let’s start by looking at the story of a tasteless tweet.

Burger King joined in with many brands in posting something to mark International Women’s Day.

But it ended up making what many may regard as the King of Twitter blunders.

It posted “Women belong in the kitchen”, before following it up with a thread that said: “If they want to, of course. Yet only 20 per cent of chefs are women. We're on a mission to change the gender ratio in the restaurant industry by empowering female employees with the opportunity to pursue a culinary career.”

It later added that it was launching a scholarship campaign to close the gender gap in the restaurant industry and more context to the campaign was provided through newspaper print adverts.

The offending tweet was eventually deleted and replaced with an apology.

“We hear you”, it posted. “We got our initial tweet wrong and we’re sorry.”

But by that time, it had triggered a huge social media backlash.

And created several negative headlines:

Burger King Says 'Women Belong In The Kitchen' And People Are Not Impressed Huff Post

Burger King’s call for more female chefs backfires after company tweets ‘women belong in the kitchen’ Evening Standard

Burger King tweets ‘women belong in the kitchen’ on International Women’s Day Metro

A similar, yet possibly more surprising crisis, considering the nature of his work, centred on Mr Beattie.

The chairman and founder of Beattie Communications, found himself making headlines for the wrong reasons after boasting on LinkedIn that his company did not hire “blacks, gays or Catholics.”

It went on to say: “We sign talented people and we don’t care about the colour of their skin, sexual orientation or religion. That’s the way it should be with every company - only hire people for their talent, experience, knowledge and wisdom.”

The post was, as the PR guru later tried to explain, “deliberately controversial” aimed at drawing focus to the company’s emphasis on talent regardless of their race, sexual orientation or religion.

But, after finding himself facing accusations of being “insensitive, racist and homophobic”, he resigned.

Mr Beattie, who regularly took to social media to share his thoughts, said: “My post was issued with the best of intent, but it did not take account of the complexities of creating a level playing field - of which I am well aware - and the language I used was inappropriate.

"I am truly sorry for the embarrassment I have caused the wonderful team across the business and our clients, and for the offence it has clearly caused.

"It's a wrench to step down as chair but I feel I have no alternative.”

So, what crisis media management lessons can be learnt from these incidents?

These are two crises caused by using controversy to try to highlight a positive message.

But the controversy completely drowned out Burger King’s gender scholarship or Beattie’s diversity credentials.

Far more people saw the initial Burger King post than the rest of the thread. How many read beyond the opening line of Mr Beattie’s LinkedIn post?

It is a shock, edgy, clickbait approach to social media aimed at grabbing as much attention as possible.

And to some extent, it worked, with Burger King spending much of Monday (8/3) trending.

But not all publicity is good publicity, particularly when it completely overshadows the good news story.

And, it can come at a high cost – apologies and damaging PR for the fast-food chain and the premature end of a career for Mr Beattie.

The desire for brands and thought leaders to appear edgy and relevant is easy to understand. But it comes with a huge risk of appearing insensitive, opportunistic and out of touch.

It is something that needs to be treated with great care on social media or more brands and individuals will find themselves facing similar crisis communication incidents.  

Find out more about planning for a crisis by downloading your copy of our free eBook.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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