Behind the viral ‘racist Karen’ video that landed McDonald’s in court

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

It was a Sunday afternoon in late 2019 and McDonald’s had a double quarter pounder of a problem on its hands.

The hashtag #toostrongforyoukaren was trending on Twitter after footage of a McDonald’s franchisee, Robert Vigors, questioning a person’s Indigenous identity went viral.

McDonald’s is facing Supreme Court legal action over its decision to end a franchise agreement.Credit: Michele Mossop

The billion-dollar burger-and-fries giant was beginning to feel the heat over the video, which also showed Vigors’ partner, Karen Ridge, trying and failing to remove an Aboriginal flag in Mildura.

Indigenous artist Robby Wirramanda Knight was filming the heated argument and responded that the flag was “too strong for you, Karen”. He also called her a “racist pig”.

In the 24 hours after the video went online on December 14, the McDonald’s corporate machine swung into full gear, making a decision to end Vigors’ franchise agreement that would eventually land them in a Victorian Supreme Court lawsuit with millions at stake.

Vigors had already agreed to sell his two Mildura stores to a new owner, ex-AFL player Leigh Colbert, before the video. But he argues the final price was lower than it should have been because of pressure from the company for a quick sale to limit the blowback.

Screenshot of former McDonald’s franchisee Robert Vigors from a viral video posted on Twitter.Credit: Twitter

“Hi guys, you have probably seen the issue we have in Mildura,” wrote then-McDonald’s Australia CEO Andrew Gregory in an email to senior staff and other franchisees at 12.32pm on December 15.

“We are immediately taking over the operation of the two Mildura restaurants from Rob Vigors. We have communicated this to him and he understands. This will take some heat out of the story which will benefit him in the short term.”

According to emails recently released by the court, senior McDonald’s staff decided to act quickly after social-media users expressed outrage over Vigors’ comments.

“What 1 per cent of you is Aboriginal, you’ve got nothing in you that’s Aboriginal,” Vigors was recorded saying to Knight, before urging him to share the video.

“Let it go viral, because people like you make a mockery of true Aboriginals,” he said.

In an email with the subject line “Update: Response to Mildura franchisee indigenous comments”, McDonald’s Australia director of corporate relations James Rickards discussed the strategy to deal with the unfolding media attention.

“Confirming we have started to release our statement this morning, in response to increasing queries,” he wrote in an email sent at 10.45am on December 15.

“Franchisee Robert Vigors contacted me directly this morning … I have informed him of our media statement and advised him to spend the day with a friend away from home, to both ensure he has appropriate support and is also not confronted by journalists at his residence.”

Rickards noted that #toostrongforyoukaren was the No.1 trending topic in Australia, although McDonald’s had only been mentioned approximately 130 times.

“However, that will now increase with the release of our statement,” he wrote, adding that the statement would not be posted on Twitter.

Gregory responded less than 15 minutes later: “Agree, don’t use Twitter”.

A few hours later, a statement appeared on the McDonald’s Facebook page.

“McDonald’s confirms the company has taken over the operation of the Mildura and Irymple restaurants, effective immediately, and Robert Vigors has left the system and is no longer involved,” the company said.

About the same time, McDonald’s Australia franchisee chairman Stephen Shillington applauded the move in an email: “A divisive decision that will only be met with positivity by the system!”

Later that night, at 7.20pm, McDonald’s Australia market director Antoni Martinez – who is now CEO – emailed Vigors, copying in head lawyer Craig Cawood, to confirm the company had taken control of his stores. “I am your solo point of contact,” he wrote.

In the days leading up to the video, Vigors had already agreed to sell the stores to Colbert for $19 million. It is unclear what the final sale price was.

A McDonald’s quarter pounder.Credit: AP

Vigors is pursuing damages from McDonald’s, arguing he ended up getting less than he was entitled to. He has dropped separate defamation litigation to concentrate on the matter.

“There was an implied threat to revoke [Vigors’] franchise rights if they refused the sale,” said his lawyer, Mark Stanarevic, from Matrix Legal.

“McDonald’s Australia’s actions have caused significant financial loss and damage. They highlight discrepancies between the market value of the franchise agreement and the sale price determined by McDonald’s.”

McDonald’s declined to comment.

In its defence document lodged in court, the company said Vigors’ comments in the video breached his licence agreement because they were “detrimental to, or would interfere with, the business of the respective restaurant”.

The case continues.

Start the day with a summary of the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up for our Morning Edition newsletter.

Most Viewed in National

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article