retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

“Why did you fire my wife?” - Bradley Reid Byrd

For a real time take on how that six-word query sparked a social media firestorm, look no further than Cracker Barrel’s Facebook page. And Instagram account. And Twitter. And Yelp. And even the bold signage outside a rival Chick-fil-A.

It all began last month when Brad’s wife Nanette was fired from her job as a retail manager at the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in Corydon, Indiana. Angered that she was terminated from the Southern comfort food chain after 11 years of service, apparently without an explanation, Brad posted his question on Facebook.

Within hours, the internet was demanding answers as well.

The hashtags #JusticeforBrad’sWife” and #BradsWife went viral, a petition got the first of more than 25,000 signature and a BradsWife page was created on Facebook. Comedian Amiri King alerted his 2 million followers to the “absolute s**t-show going on at Cracker Barrel’s Old Country Store Facebook page.”

The execs and social media team at Cracker Barrel’s headquarters chose not to respond online, to press inquiries or comment publicly, and their social media nightmare only escalated.

According to the marketing tech company Amobee, Cracker Barrel’s digital engagement since the incident has skyrocketed by 226%, and yes, it’s all about Brad’s Wife. The merciless memes mix outrage, humor, exaggeration and cynicism, and show no signs of abating.

For example, a Facebook post about sweet maple pepper bacon prompted this response: “Sweet maple bacon? More like mother of sweet mercy, why did you fire Brad’s wife? Eleven years her smile lit up all of Cracker Barrel.”

A recent post about a peek-a-boo bunny Easter basket was met with the following: “The bunny is covering his eyes, because he can't bear to look at you monsters who fired Brad's wife.”

In what has been referred to as “digital vandalism,” internet trolls unleashed their fury on the Yelp and Google pages of Cracker Barrel restaurants, posting negative reviews and demanding justice.

In the meantime, Nanette Byrd has received plenty of job offers from fast food chains and retailers. Independent Chick-fil-A franchises from Texas to Tennessee chimed in with “Now hiring Brad’s Wife” signs that also went viral.

To be fair, Cracker Barrel is in a real bind with the Brad’s Wife debacle, since it is a personnel issue. The most effective way to slow down a social media runaway train is to get in front of it – quickly and decisively. Case in point: Last week’s tone deaf Kendall Jenner commercial from Pepsi, which debuted online. The internet backlash was immediate, and the soft drink giant yanked the ad within 24 hours and apologized.

But it’s a whole different story when an employee has been canned. Amid thousands of negative tweets, I’ve come across just one voice defending Cracker Barrel. A columnist for Inc. magazine posed this question: If you were so unfortunate as to lose your job, would you want the entire internet demanding to know why?

I was ready to state that Cracker Barrel should have at least come up with a response along the lines of “It is company policy not to comment publicly on a personnel issue.” Say the minimum, end of discussion. It seems the most reasonable position, likely to be supported by media, human resource and legal departments.

But then I came across the 2014 story of Cracker Barrel firing a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran in Florida for giving a piece of cornbread to a needy customer. In a statement, Cracker Barrel said he was terminated after multiple written warnings, counseling and his fifth violation of company policy. So much for saying the minimum.

I think this ongoing tale should prompt all companies to review their policies on how to handle a social media crisis, which like a tornado can come out of nowhere and leave a path of destruction. Just ask Cracker Barrel, which says it has a mission of “Pleasing People” at its 635 stores. In this case, all it took was one pink slip for a company with 72,000 employees to find itself over a barrel.

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