When words mean more than action
Royal public relations were a tough gig this week. As a crisis over race and mental health engulfed the House of Windsor, fast food royalty Burger King was flame-grilled in a row over misogyny on International Women’s Day.
The King’s whopping gaffe was tweeting “women belong in the kitchen” to promote a new initiative tackling under-representation of female chefs. Although the following tweets in the thread put the first in context, setting out details of the problem and Burger King’s solution, most readers did not see beyond the first line.
Twitter was not amused. BK was accused of “toxic marketing”, “inverted trolling” and perpetuating misogynistic tropes for clickbait. The company initially defended the tweet, saying it wanted to draw attention to the fact that only 20 per cent of professional chefs are women. However, the rage was unsated, and BK deleted the tweet later that day. The campaign went up in smoke.
While doubtlessly clumsily executed online, the subsequent outrage in response also reveals a profound shift in norms around what people find offensive. The historical baggage around language and its ownership is increasingly more problematic and complicated for brands than fundamental principles. Burger King’s appropriation of the stereotype to draw attention to social issues – even backed up by investment for change – pushed away people the company was hoping to attract.
BK hadn’t issued platitudes of solidarity with women this week. It identified an issue and put money into making a difference. The cause fits perfectly with BK’s Your Way brand promise and follows a history of standing for equality on race, sexual orientation and access to the internet. Its 2014 pride burger was wrapped in a rainbow flag but was otherwise identical, with the message inside “we’re all the same”. Last year the company showed the King kissing arch-rival Ronald McDonald in a message of love for Helsinki Pride.
This suggests it’s no longer enough to have good intentions, even backed by cash and a record of meaningful action. Partly this is down to ever shortening attention spans but it’s also a consequence of generational shift. As BK once said – the kids are king. Gen Z consumers are making their mark. Notoriously cynical, they are much less likely to give brands the benefit of the doubt. Many simply didn’t believe BK’s intentions or apology, arguing the company knew what it was doing.
While a less forgiving public strengthens the case for PR and comms functions, it also turns every utterance into a high-wire act. Less courageous brands than Burger King could take the view it’s simply not worth the risk. For every Burger King there are thousands of other companies that keep below the radar or offer inoffensive – but meaningless – platitudes.
That’s a problem for all of us who want to see businesses take social leadership positions backed up with action. We need brands like Burger King to keep advancing agendas for change. It’s said the road to hell is paved with good intentions but our industry needs to defend the companies that try to make a difference and call out the majority that shelter in the safety of silence.
There is consolation for the BK team – things could be worse. They could be charged with dousing the rancorous flames at Buck House. That right royal mess will take longer to fix than BK’s bun fight.