It was a pretty impressive maneuver. When Kentucky Fried Chicken ran out of fried chicken in the United Kingdom, it managed to turn it into something of a PR coup – all in the course of a week.
Humor was key to KFC’s approach – reversing its namesake letters to “FCK” in a large newspaper ad and playing off the riddle “Why did the chicken cross the road?” And that was indicative of a larger crisis strategy – one that showed up in another narrowly averted PR disaster for Crock-Pot, which was identified as the cause of the death of a beloved (though fictional) character on the hit show “This Is Us.”
The successful efforts by both companies made us think about crisis PR response lessons for professional services organizations that might confront similar situations – even if the details will obviously differ. That is, unless a law firm or management consulting outfit ends up running out of drumsticks.
- Words matter – and the first words matter most. In most crises, quickly responding is as important as the statement itself. The morning following the “This Is Us” episode that implied Crock-Pot’s responsibility in the character Jack Pearson’s death, the company published a statement sharing the audience’s devastation and encouraging consumers to continue using their slow cookers in his memory. A timely and persistent demonstration that your organization cares is critical to properly addressing a crisis, as is demonstrating empathy. KFC, meanwhile, handled its persistent crisis with apparent ease, taking to Twitter every couple of days after the chicken shortage to reiterate that the situation was under control.
- Address situations head-on. KFC’s statement was successful largely thanks to its full-page apology, which was simple and sort of genius. It featured a stark photo of an empty chicken bucket accompanied by the text, “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal.” Successful statements include acknowledgment of the issue, denial (if something isn’t true), acceptance of responsibility (if it is), actionable steps and reinforcement of an organization’s values without diminishing the impact the event has had or will have on stakeholders. It’s also important that organizations reinforce critical facts. For example, Crock-Pot’s crisis response team provided the media with facts such as, “For nearly 50 years, with over 100 million Crock-Pots sold, we have never received any consumer complaints similar to the fictional events portrayed in last night’s episode. In fact, the safety and design of our product renders this type of event nearly impossible.”
- Empathize, dammit. The perception that you don’t care is the single biggest predictor of broken trust, reputational harm and loss of competitive advantage from a crisis. Just as a single term or phrase can destroy a company’s reputation, it can also save it. Empathy was key to the effectiveness of KFC’s and Crock-Pot’s statements. The first words in KFC’s message were “We’re sorry” followed by a clear acknowledgment that their consumers, team members and franchise partners were all affected. Crock-Pot began each of its messages with empathy and concern for their users (and “This Is Us” fans), describing their own sadness over the character’s demise.
- Be ready when you have to take action. Wouldn’t it be great if all crises ended with quick, clear and sympathetic public statements? Here’s something that won’t shock you – they don’t. Good leaders take action because they know that when a crisis strikes, empty words don’t mitigate the situation. All stakeholders – whether employees, consumers, stockholders, board members, media, etc. – expect an organization to take action. We advise our clients to have a crisis plan in place ahead of time – one that plans for potential threats and identifies which employees will be doing what when a crisis arrives. At that point, you should make sure to gather all the facts and determine the appropriate message (and who needs to hear it). And make sure to continuously evaluate the circumstances and modify the course of action as needed.
Crises are unpredictable, so having a crisis preparedness strategy in place for the moment you run out of fried chicken or find yourself implicated in the death of a beloved fictional character – or the B2B equivalent – is crucial. It may just save your organization’s reputation.
Jessica loves the fast paced media environment, particularly the adrenaline rush that comes with successfully positioning clients around a breaking news story.
Outside of the office, Jessica has established a passion for yoga where she finds strength and solitude on the mat.
Abby has built a successful career providing clients with top quality support in communication strategy, media relations, crisis communication, social media management, project coordination, executive positioning, writing and editing.
She enjoys horseback riding, either training in the northwest suburbs of her hometown of Chicago or exploring the trails of Montana.