Why Did The KFC Chicken Cross the Road? Because They Had PR FAIL

Once again a big brand name has fallen ill in the world of public relations and in the face of a growing crisis. At one point it was JetBlue, then it was Motrin, and now it has become fast-food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken. You may have heard that the restaurant chain recently promoted its grilled chicken and in order to gain publicity, they orchestrated a campaign through their agency DraftFCB Chicago to drive people to the stores to buy their product. In probably one of the smartest moves, the campaign even had world-famous Oprah Winfrey promote the chicken on her show and inform her viewers that they could print out a coupon online and redeem it for two free pieces of grilled chicken. One of the driving motivations behind the campaign was to help put into people’s minds the slogan “Unthink KFC” – that KFC is not just fried chicken, biscuits, gravy, and cole slaw. They have grilled & some healthy food. It sounded like a great campaign.

And then everything fell apart.

A tip to begin working on a campaign would probably be to check to make sure that your infrastructure can handle the demand, and that includes making sure all logistics are addressed as well. For KFC and DraftFCB Chicago, the campaign that would change perception of the brand started when Oprah’s viewers & millions of other customers started to download & print out the coupons. But the infrastructure couldn’t support it and resulted in some people not being able to print.

Matters got worse when some KFC franchises decided NOT to honor the coupon because they had not clarified the issue about being reimbursed by the corporate office (you can read the entire story on AdAge here). Needless to say, people weren’t really happy with the overall experience. But no, KFC wasn’t admonished in the mainstream media. No no…they were given a vitriolic review by those on Twitter – their customers! People were putting tweets under the hashtag #KFCFail and it was getting out that they weren’t happy. In the end, KFC pulled the promotion but with no response or explanation. That made matters worse.

Interesting statistics in an AdAge article about the KFC incident stated that:

According to Zeta Interactive, which monitors blog chatter, KFC generally popped up in about 538 blog posts daily, with 72% of mentions positive. During the promotion, that number soared to 1,319 mentions, 89% of which were positive. But cutting the cord on Thursday had an immediate effect, with 772 posts. Negative ratings shot up, to 33%.

So what’s the point in all of this? What’s the lesson to be learned?

Crisis management is something that people are taught and can address. It’s been going on for politicians and countless other businesses…but it’s been truly seen during the time of traditional media. You have a PR spokesperson get on stage in front of the podium and give a prepared speech about what’s going on and how the company is resolving the issue and that’s it. Maybe issue a press release. Granted, I don’t know much about crisis management since I’m not in PR, BUT I do know about the web & am familiar with Shel Holtz’s presentation on how to use crisis management/communication with those on the Internet.

During the NewComm Forum 2009 at the annual Society for New Communications Research in San Francisco, Shel Holtz gave an incredible presentation where he addressed the use of social media to communicate quicker than what’s been done in the past with respect to what happens during a crisis. Some helpful tips that you can imploy:

  • Respond quickly, accurately, professionally, with care.
  • Be transparent and accessible.
  • Treat perceptions as fact.
  • Acknowledge mistakes.
  • Tailor messages to address the “angry” party.
  • Note other side’s concerns.
  • Make no public confrontations.
  • Emphasize existing relationships.

In the computer and Internet era, people are becoming accustomed to looking to the web for information. They aren’t waiting with bated breath for CNN, MSNBC, FOX, ABC, or CBS to announce what’s going on. The “Miracle on the Hudson” first broke on Twitter with the latest information coming on mainstream media, but citizen journalism (if it can be called that), helped spread news about the disaster and the miracle that occurred with the plane landing safely & first captured on a cell phone. There was no waiting for a camera crew before photos were spread around.

Taking Shel Holtz’s presentation into account, just what could DraftFCB have done (if they ultimately didn’t do anything) to help assuage the mass protests over the botched promotion? You know that KFC doesn’t even have a blog on their website? With customers probably already on the site, KFC should have gone ahead and put together some information and had it displayed on their website and accepted comments. DraftFCB probably should have brought  in someone with a PR background & social media experience if there wasn’t one in-house to look at the blogs and tweets being generated and respond to a majority of them, in addition to some other strategy to help minimize the effect this campaign had on the restaurant’s customer base.

Make no mistake about the fact that it’s impossible that 100% of your customers have a favorable rating about your brand. As Holtz said: don’t filter the negative. In a crisis, you’ll need to look at both what good people are saying about your brand AND the bad. Take it all in stride and work to fix those relationships quickly, not later.

You can view Shel Holtz’s presentation on his website For Immediate Release and check out some more of his podcasts & presentations here.

Disclosure: I am a previous (contract) employee of DraftFCB working in their San Francsico office. I left on good terms and have no ill-will towards this agency. They do some great work.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently Flipboard's Assistant Managing Editor, overseeing news curation in technology, science, gaming and health. In addition to his day job, Ken's the co-host of "The Created Economy" podcast, examining the Creator Economy. In a past life, he was a former reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding.