How to Survive a Public Brand Scandal and Recover Customers’ Trust

A recipe for minimizing the fallout

Communication has to be prompt and compassionate during a brand crisis.

It was a chicken joke of epic proportions, but it took a while for the punch line to land.

For nearly two weeks last month, nearly 900 KFC franchises in the U.K. were unable to obtain fresh chicken parts thanks to a cock-up with the company’s new delivery firm.

KFC U.K. needed to acknowledge the problem, and it knew that the usual bland corporate apology would not satisfy its hangry customers. So the U.K. subsidiary’s agency of record, Mother London, decided to go extra crispy. It took out full-page ads in two major dailies succinctly expressing what company executives, franchise owners and its finger-lickin’ fans must have been feeling.

KFC U.K.’s cheeky response to a chicken shortage turned an embarrassing screwup into a public relations win. As a result, its reputation is recovering relatively quickly, notes Stephan Shakespeare, co-founder and CEO of YouGov.

By turning its familiar three-letter logo into a playful vulgarity (FCK), KFC both “acknowledged the completeness of its crisis and used subtle appropriate humor to show us it got where customers’ heads were at,” says Will McInnes, CMO for Brandwatch, a social media listening platform.

But KFC U.K.’s response didn’t end there. It used its Twitter feed adroitly, apologizing to customers, answering questions and offering cheeky updates. It set up a website where chicken lovers could find out when their favorite restaurants would reopen. Most important, the restaurant chain did not fall into the trap of offering excuses, pointing fingers or cowering until the crisis had passed.

“The natural instinct is to be defensive and go into some long-winded explanation about what went wrong in the supply chain,” says Mike Hatcliffe, a reputation and risk consultant for RockDove Solutions, makers of a mobile crisis management platform. “Instead, they took ownership of it and got there quickly before social media chatter defined the story for them.”

Egg on their faces

KFC U.K.’s tongue-in-cheek crisis management strategy was intelligent, timely and human. But that makes it a rare bird.

Over the last few years, brands like United Airlines, Equifax, Volkswagen, Wells Fargo and Uber, among others, have endured major public scandals that were made worse by the companies’ tone-deaf, ham-fisted responses.

When passengers have been captured on video being dragged from one of your planes, when you’ve leaked the financial records of 150 million people, or systematically faked automobile emission tests, or created millions of phantom bank accounts, or fostered an environment of rampant sexual harassment, the worst things you can do are deny, blame the victims or hide behind bland policy statements. And yet, that’s exactly what these brands did, at least at first.

“I can count on one hand crises that have been well handled over the last three or four years,” says Paul Holmes, founder of The Holmes Report, which tracks the public relations industry and publishes an annual list of the worst PR crises. “But that may be because when they’re handled well they never become a crisis. The brand’s response is a bigger contributor to the overall result than the initial problem.”

Why are so many major organizations still so bad at this?

“Very senior executives are often insulated from what’s going on around them,” says Irv Schenkler, professor of management communication at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “Instead of acting on data, they sometimes react instinctively, trying to create a wall about their brand to protect it.”

But crisis communications is not rocket science. There are five basic rules each organization needs to follow, says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management.

Communication has to be prompt and compassionate, he says. It needs to be honest and informative. And in the age of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, it needs to be interactive—organizations need to quickly and efficiently answer questions stakeholders will have.

Yet for many, the first instinct is to run and hide.

This story first appeared in the March 12, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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