How to Avoid Social Media Disasters

Another day, another QSR restaurant employee posts pictures of his frozen urine on Instagram.

The latest episode came courtesy of a pair of Subway employees out of Columbus, Ohio, who posted lewd pictures on Instagram, and on Twitter, according to Huffington Post. We won't repeat the details here, but it was just the latest of what has been a lengthy string of PR disasters combining young, low-income employees, cell phone cameras and social media. Chains like KFC, Taco Bell, Burger King, Golden Corral and others have been blindsided by employees who post stupid photos of, among other things, themselves having sex at work, taking baths in company sinks and performing various disgusting acts with food.

All of which makes me wonder: Why on Earth would any restaurant franchisee allow their workers to keep cell phones during their shift?

"You'd think so," said Lee Plave, partner in the Reston, Virginia-based franchise law firm Plave Koch.

Indeed, the Internet has been popular for 20 years now. The first camera phone was sold 13 years ago. Social media sites have been around for a decade—Facebook was founded nine years ago, Twitter seven. And yet stories of social media disasters befalling restaurant franchises appear at least once a month.

Make no mistake: the results of these posted photos can be a PR nightmare, and a business disaster. Franchisees who have employed workers doing such things have gone out of business, while others have had their franchise agreements terminated. And these issues can be felt systemwide, particularly in brands that have had this happen too often.

"Something of this nature can be an absolutely devastating blow to a business," Plave said.

So how can franchisors and franchisees avoid being the victim of having their food photographed in an, uh, unconventional manner and then posted online?

Well, to start, they can have a good social media policy. "The only rational way to approach this is to have a thorough, robust and somewhat fluid social media policy," Plave said. "It should cover things like taking photos, appearing with products, wearing the uniform shirt off duty." That policy should be at the franchisor level. It starts at the top, with an active, engaged CEO and which includes the involvement of franchisees.

Once that's established, training is key, and enforce the rules when necessary. "Train, reinforce, train, reinforce, and if need be, enforce," Plave said. The training should be at every level within a franchise system, down to store managers and employees. "You can't have people whose jobs depend on the success of the brand held hostage to the lowest common denominator who thinks it's funny to post a picture online," Plave said.

Franchisees should take action, too, even if there is no social media policy. That includes establishing rigid rules during a work shift. Though operators risk seeming out of step with modern social media reality, it's key to make sure workers understand that their livelihoods are on the line, too. "Get employees themselves to buy in," Plave said. "In the economy we're in, people who want to keep their jobs don't want to do something to damage their employer because it doesn't serve their interests. Work with people on a rational, common sense, basis."

And, though it may seem a bit drastic, one of the steps can indeed  be to collect cell phones at the start of a shift. Plenty of businesses do so, for security or other reasons. And workers shouldn't be using their cell phones during work hours, anyway. "I don't see any reason why a person needs to make a personal phone call during their shift—or a Snapchat," Plave said.

None of this guarantees that a restaurant will be fully protected against a social media disaster. Vengeful employees can be difficult to stop, and stupidity has a way of making it past even the best security measures. Many QSR workers consider their jobs temporary. They're also young, naive, and part of a generation that has a higher tolerance level for such actions. Yet these steps should help franchisors and franchisees keep such events to a minimum.

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About This Blog

News, notes and commentary on franchise financing, including SBA lending, both the SBA 7(a) program and the SBA 504 program, franchise finance programs, development incentives, big deals and startup lending.

  Mary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and its sister publication, the Restaurant Finance Monitor. She is a frequent speaker at meetings and conferences, and at the Restaurant Finance & Development Conference. You can find her on Twitter at @mlarson1011.
  Reporter Jonathan Maze covers restaurants and finance for Franchise Times. He also writes for our sister publication, The Restaurant Finance Monitor, and writes a daily blog on the restaurant industry at You can also catch him on Twitter at @jonathanmaze.




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