Byron protests: Is the burger chain unethical or mixed up in a scandal not of its making?

PRs assess whether the latest protests over Byron Burger's involvement in an immigration sting against its own workers will cause hefty damage for the brand.

Byron under fire: Protests in London yesterday (credit: Don Flynn via Twitter)
Byron under fire: Protests in London yesterday (credit: Don Flynn via Twitter)

Two London branches of Byron have been forced to close in recent days during protests led by two organisations – London Black Revs and the Malcolm X Movement – which released hundreds of live insects into the restaurants. Branches were also targeted on Friday, while other protesters picketed restaurants over the weekend and #boycottbyron continued to spread on Twitter.

Protests have been orchestrated with the help of social media since news spread that the restaurant chain had helped UK immigration officers to round up 35 suspected illegal migrant workers from Albania, Brazil, Egypt and Nepal in a raid that took place across London on 4 July.

In a joint statement, London Black Revs and the Malcolm X Movement said they had taken action "in response to the despicable actions in the past weeks having entrapped waiters, back-of-house staff and chefs in collaboration with the UK Border Agency".

"We apologise to customers and staff for any irritation, however, with the growing climate of racism and xenophobia, a line must be drawn and we say, enough is enough," it said.

While debate has raged regarding Byron’s part in the sting, Nick Andrews, FleishmanHillard Fishburn's senior vice-president and partner and EMEA reputation management lead, said he felt that if handled correctly this should still be a short-term hit for Byron, rather than inflicting long-term damage.

"The incident does not, after all, undermine its core proposition, which is to serve relatively inexpensive, quality food in a congenial setting," Andrews said. "A scandal focusing on cleanliness, or staff misbehaving with the food, has the potential to be much worse – look at what is happening with Chipotle in the US."

He said Byron had become "a lightning rod for swirling anger around immigration and the treatment of immigrants, but no one is suggesting that other than bowing to government pressure and facilitating the ‘raid’ it has done anything to cause the underlying issue". 

However, Scott McKenzie, Lansons’ joint MD, said the Byron saga would be difficult to sweep under the carpet. "It has acted in a way that is unethical. Its treatment of migrant workers employed illegally is likely to cast a long shadow over its reputation and it will be extremely difficult to recover," he said. The company has "been particularly tone deaf to the potential public reaction of ‘shopping in’ the very people it illegally employed", he added.

"How would you feel if you were an employee at Byron now, knowing that there is a distinct lack of moral backbone being displayed by its leadership? It could easily mean that you are the next person thrown under the bus – hardly a recipe for trust." 

Way To Blue’s head of consumer Alan Twigg agreed that the issue of trust would be a significant one. "My concern is that Byron has been used as a publicity tool for the Home Office," he said. "I don’t believe the public reaction is about the legal due process though – it is about the perception that a brand has turned on its employees by tricking them."

Twigg noted that the switch to impersonal and corporate messaging in a crisis, having built the brand on "a warm and seemingly transparent tonality", could have contributed to creating anger as it "makes the brand personality seem fabricated".

As for the road to redemption, McKenzie said: "The need for Byron to apologise and make things right for the people it betrayed – as far as it can – is clear. The importance of demonstrating a stronger, more ethical leadership will be vital if Byron is to re-engage its employees and repair its shattered reputation."

Andrews' take on the near future is initially for Byron to ride out the storm of protests. "Acting in a calm and reasonable manner and showing that it acted in good faith is important, not least because it will contrast with the aggression of the attacks it is facing," he said.

Andrew went on to say: "Could it use this as a platform for positive action, with its experience energizing both management and staff to tackle some of the social ills which it illustrates? If not, then how will it engage its customers and staff in the brand going forward?"

While protests and the #boycottbyron hashtag originated on social media, others took to Twitter to declare the protesters’ actions had influenced them, but not in such a positive way...

Another pointed out the protest backfired in one respect...

Apparently the CEO rolled up his sleeves to help with the aftermath – though some raised an eyebrow at that.

PRWeek asked Byron’s consumer and corporate agency M&C Saatchi for comment on the latest developments, but the agency said it would not comment.

An earlier statement on the Home Office investigation said: "Byron was unaware that any of our workers were in possession of counterfeit documentation until the Home Office brought it to our attention... We carry out rigorous ‘right to work’ checks, but sophisticated counterfeit documentation was used in order to pass these checks."

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