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Leon Kaye headshot

Pizza Hut Manager’s Letter Threatening Employees Fleeing Irma Offers Painful Lesson for Brands

By Leon Kaye

A letter posted on a Jacksonville, Florida Pizza Hut bulletin board warning employees that they risked punishment for fleeing Hurricane Irma caused plenty of buzz on social media earlier this week:




Reaction, of course, ranged from snark to outrage at the brand. “You guys are closed on Christmas, but sending delivery drivers to their death for a hurricane? What's up with that?” asked one Twitter user on Sunday.

In fairness to Pizza Hut and its parent, Yum! Brands, fast food and casual dining companies have little control over the day-to-day actions of its franchisees. And to Pizza Hut’s credit, the company made it clear that there was no such policy dictating when team members can leave or return from a natural disaster such as Irma. Pizza Hut’s communications team also insisted the manager who wrote the letter was not following company guidelines and the local franchise operator “addressed” the situation with that store’s management in Jacksonville.

But the company did not apologize; perhaps Pizza Hut and Yum! Brands felt they did not have to, as this was a local snafu and in no way reflected the values of the Texas-based pizza giant.

Nevertheless, just as companies can no longer shirk responsibility for what occurs within even the furthest reaches of their supply chains, nor should companies for which franchising is core to their business refuse to own corporate actions in franchise locations. The risk that Jacksonville manager imposed on his company’s brand and reputation could negate the brave feats of other Pizza Hut employees, such as a pregnant store manager in Houston who found a way to deliver pies to Hurricane Harvey victims by kayaks.

The carelessness displayed at that Jacksonville Pizza Hut location also highlighted the difficulties many fast-food workers and their minimum-wage earning brethren face daily. As Maura Judkis of the Washington Post reminded us, whether they are single parents or students struggling to get by, many fast food workers could not evacuate in the first place. Few, if any, have any job protections. Leaving their homes and jobs could put these workers at risk of getting fired; staying meant a risk to their safety, and also the strong possibility they could lose their jobs if public transport options disappeared or they faced huge automobile repair bills due to flood damage.

Yum! Brands presents itself as running an ambitious employee engagement program; but it is clear that at a minimum, some employees in Florida have not been part of that conversation. And now Pizza Hut, to many, highlight the woes of working within the fast food industry.

The lessons Pizza Hut’s c-suite need to impart across the organization, as well as to franchises, include ensuring store owners are rigorously trained; that the company’s culture finds its way even to the most remote branded store; and values such as community service and sustainability are not just something posted on a web site, but are understood by everyone who is part of Pizza Hut’s extended family. After all, those typical 6 percent royalties that franchisees generally pay parent companies will do little to staunch the financial and reputational damage to a company’s brand.

Unfortunately for companies in this age of social media, it only takes one wayward employee, franchisee or ill-planned event to plunk a company into an embarrassing social media debacle. KitchenAid had more than batter on its face after an employee tweeted about former President Obama’s deceased grandmother on Twitter – from the company’s account. A Starbucks Christmastime social media campaign ended up with accusations the company dodged taxes in the United Kingdom. And embarrassments over pre-peeled citrus and $6 asparagus water contributed to Whole Foods’s woes before Amazon acquired the retailer.

More companies have taken ownership of their supply chains, as they realize one wayward supplier can cause an uproar that puts their reputation and long-term financial health at risk. Franchises need to be included in these initiatives and programs. After all, the evolving restaurant sector is already beset by several challenges, such as younger consumers’ changing dining habits and the effects they have exacted on the fast food industry. The last thing these companies need is to give consumers another reason to find other meal options.

The ill-timed Jacksonville bulletin board note should serve as a case study for how companies, and not just those in the food industry, need to engage everyone so that when companies say and act like responsible organizations, consumers will trust that they are genuinely authentic.

Image credit: Jacobin Magazine/Twitter

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye