Pizza Hut is facing heat on social media after an internal memo, posted at one of the chain’s Jacksonville, Florida locations before Hurricane Irma made landfall in the area, threatened to punish employees that evacuated more than 24 hours before the storm. The memo warned that “failure to show” for shifts outside of a 24-hour grace period would result in punitive measures for employees, and that “in the event of an evacuation, all employees must return to scheduled shifts within 72 hours.”
— Jacobin (@jacobinmag) September 11, 2017
Pizza Hut’s corporate communications team responded quickly, telling USA TODAY and Business Insider that the memo was an “isolated incident.” In a press statement, a spokesperson denied that there was any policy time-limiting employees’ ability to evacuate in a disaster, and promised that the franchise owner had addressed the issue with the manager who posted the memo.
Pizza Hut’s predicament is one many communicators at large brands face, wherein keeping policies well-communicated among franchisees during a crisis is a challenge. Franchise managers are free agents, and in this case one acted rashly in the face of natural disaster.
But while social media’s ire is centered on the Jacksonville location’s apparent disregard for employee safety, one key phrase in the memo, the location’s “commitment to the community,” raises an important point: the (literal) power fast food restaurants hold during a natural disaster, given their access to powerful generators, food and drink. (Case in point: A PR News staffer’s mother, one of millions of Floridians without power after the storm hit, spent time in a Wendy’s in Delray Beach, which retained electricity through the use of a generator.)
Incidentally, Pizza Hut’s current crisis comes right after the chain received positive press around a Texas employee who harnessed that power for good, using a kayak to deliver pizzas to flooded Hurricane Harvey-hit residents. Several other nationwide brands earned media accolades for their post-Harvey aid as well. But as past fast food chain crises have shown, it doesn’t take much for the actions of a single agent to sink the PR goodwill earned by others.