For 10 days during the biggest disaster in fried chicken history, everyone at KFC HQ was thinking one thing: “FFFFFCCCCKKKK.”
But rather than run around like headless chickens, KFC’s marketing and communications team, with the help of agencies Mother and Freuds, turned an epic cock-up into an Cannes Lions award-winning communications campaign – one that has been described as a “masterclass in communications” by Frank founder Andrew Bloch.
While it was virtually impossible to escape the scandal and the press frenzy that ensued in February, very little has been publicly revealed about how KFC handled the corporate crisis internally – until recently.
Last month, KFC UK and Ireland head of brand engagement Jenny Packwood provided Cision’s CommsCon with a rare insider’s view into how the famous fried chicken chain handled the PR disaster and the events leading up to that infamous FCK bucket.
The story began on Valentine’s Day, when KFC switched over to new distribution partner DHL to “improve the efficiency and performance of supply chain” to its 900-plus restaurants in the UK and Ireland.
But the change didn’t get off to a great start. A major logistical disruption led to a nationwide shortfall of chicken and the subsequent closure of all KFC’s UK restaurants.
Packwood explained this wasn’t a mere corporate comms disaster but a “full-blown operational crisis” that provided a baying press with a seemingly endless gravy train of chicken puns, succulent headlines, and crossing-the-road jokes.
“It was a bad day at the office,” Packwood bluntly summed up. “We took 321 media inquiries over the first seven days – that is half of our annual average. There were over 1,000 pieces of coverage globally across print, online, and broadcast, and 80 percent of all UK adults were exposed to this story, although I always question what the other 20 percent were doing.”
‘A self-fulfilling PR beast’
At the peak of the crisis, 750 KFC restaurants temporarily shut their doors, affecting 19,000 staff and countless more unhappy customers, including one disgruntled KFC fan who now had to go to Burger King for her fast food fix.
Packwood said there were many factors that heaped “rocket fuel” onto a chicken-less KFC bonfire, the biggest ones being how widely known KFC is and the unprecedented scale of the closures.
“Another reason that made this so compelling as a story was there was actually no easy fix or end in sight,” Packwood said. “For the first few weeks, we literally didn’t have an answer, so the media smelled blood.”
Staff pay, food wastage, unions, and inquisitive MPs were just some of the comms problems KFC had to deal with. But, perhaps, some of the hardest were angry customers. Packwood recalled some even calling the police to complain that they were unable to get their favorite KFC bucket.
“It becomes a self-fulfilling beast you cannot control, and the social response then became fuel for the media,” Packwood recalled. “Consumers and other brands were getting involved, and there were memes.”
Taking back control
So how did the embattled chicken chain turn it around?
Packwood said the key lesson KFC learned is the importance of “remaining true to its brand voice.” KFC positioned itself in a self-deprecating and human way – admitting it screwed up and taking a light-hearted dig at itself.
“So often when crisis hits, the easy and most comfortable thing is to retract into that safe corporate space where you do a terribly formal statement and everything sounds like it is written by a lawyer,” Packwood said.
“We actively decided not to do that. We know who we are as a brand and what our tone is, and we stuck to it, which is light-hearted, honest, authentic, and a little bit irreverent.”
KFC tackled the issue head-on and made no attempt to deflect blame onto anyone else, even though there was an obvious scapegoat.
“We just put up our hand and said this is a massive cock-up, and that gave us huge credibility and won us goodwill among the media and our customers,” Packwood added.
An important part of KFC’s crisis comms approach was using social media as a channel for proactive communications. This allowed the brand to deal with the concerns of consumers and the media effectively and, most important, to wrest back a perception of control over a situation it had no control over.
“Those of you who have worked in the thick of a crisis know that you often feel like you have completely lost control, and the story has its own momentum. This totally shut it down,” Packwood said. “All of the attention was focused on our response, as opposed to whether we were paying our staff, which we were doing, or what we were doing with the wasted chicken.”
The FCK bucket
The goodwill KFC built from its social media strategy provided the brand and its agency partners with the confidence and platform to launch a paid media campaign that introduced the world to the FCK bucket.
This brave apology campaign only ran in print but quickly went viral on social media and put a human face to that time KFC’s chickens literally got lost while trying to find the road.
“It gave us a way of saying sorry in a bold and human way, and in a way that felt true to our brand,” Packwood explained. “Basically, this is what we were all saying in the office all the time – ‘f*ck’ – it also resonated with consumers and disarmed the issue a bit.”
Packwood doesn’t encourage all brands to respond to corporate crises by printing expletive-laden ads in newspapers, but for the irreverent fast food company, the communications strategy proved a finger lickin’ recipe even Colonel Sanders would be proud of.
‘Don’t let sorry get beaten out of you’
Ed O’Brien, Teneo Blue Rubicon MD of crisis communications, said KFC’s proactive approach is an important lesson for brands that feel the need to apologize for an incident.
“For me, the key thing about the ‘sorry’ word is don’t let it get beaten out of you,” O’Brien said. “Quite often you will see an organization refusing to say sorry, there’s then four headlines about them refusing, and a week later they are humiliated and thrashed into it.
“Look ahead and predict the fact you are going to have to apologize, and take the hit early rather than having to be wrestled.”
Gumtree head of comms Fergus Campbell said it is vital for companies to project the right tone when it comes to saying sorry.
“If there is a situation that relates to personal loss or safety, then you have to get that emotionally intelligent response right,” he stressed. “People obsess about the word [‘sorry’], but the key thing is the emotional [delivery].”
This article originally ran on prweek.com.