For an industry built on convenience, the fast-food sector lately has been anything but convenient for many PR professionals. Instead, a recent outbreak of fast-food fails has been occupying much of the time of those working on behalf of Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and other familiar brand-name chains.
Whether the source of the situation is an unhappy customer airing a gripe
, as was the case last week at Dunkin’ Donuts, or a wayward employee acting up on camera
, such as the infamous 2009 incident involving two Domino’s staffers, social media channels now allow for every transgression to be witnessed by millions of people before the day is out. This creates an increasingly difficult challenge for the public relations people who are responsible for protecting the images of fast-food brands, but it also provides them a powerful platform with which to work.
“In a crisis situation, brands need to react quickly,” says Heather Whaling, president of Geben Communication in Columbus, Ohio. “In social, if you’re not quick, you’re not relevant. Particularly when food prep and sanitation is involved, the companies need to swiftly demonstrate that that kind of behavior is not tolerated and atypical. The good news is that social media provides a very public forum for brands to convey how seriously they take these issues and the steps being implemented to protect customers.”
With that advice in mind, let’s take a look at five recent fast-food fails, the role social media has played in all of them, and how the brands involved have responded.
Papa John’s driver delivers a racist rant
Not entirely unfamiliar with the situation
, Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter issued public apologies on Facebook and Twitter to a customer in Sanford, Fla., after a delivery driver for the pizza chain inadvertently left a racist message on the customer’s voice mail. The driver’s own cell phone accidently redialed the customer when the driver sat back down in his car after delivering an order, and the driver’s ensuing rant to a co-worker in the car about the size of tips he receives from African-Americans in Sanford was recorded on the customer’s voice mail.
The recording lasted nearly four minutes and included racist slurs being spoken and at times sung by the driver, along with laughter from his passenger. The customer posted the recording on YouTube, and it went viral, creating an incendiary public relations crisis for the company. Schnatter used social media outlets to say that he also personally reached out to the customer and offered his “heartfelt apologies” to the family and the Sanford community as a whole. He also confirmed that both employees had been terminated as a result of the incident.
“The best thing brands can do in these types of situations is to get out in front of these crises aggressively and take swift action with the employees,” offers Arik Hanson, principal of ACH Communications, a digital marketing and PR consultancy based in Minneapolis.
[RELATED: Master the can't-ignore social media tools after Mark Ragan's one-day social media boot camp.]
Taco Bell’s image takes a licking
A California employee of the largest Mexican fast-food chain in the U.S. was photographed licking a stack of taco shells in March, reportedly as part of a company photo contest to show how much employees were enjoying the new line of Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos. Though never submitted for the contest, the photo found its way onto the employee’s personal Facebook page, and it went viral, creating a sticky situation for the brand.
Taco Bell issued multiple statements, the first of which explained that the shells in the photograph were never meant for public consumption and used only for employee training before being discarded. That alone did little to quell the public’s outrage when the photo first circulated early this month, so the company released another statement saying it was terminating the employee for violating social media and food-handling policies, despite the fact that “we do not believe (he) harmed or intended to harm anyone, but we deplore the impression this has caused for our customers, fans, franchisees, and team members.”
“If someone breaks the rules, the policy should make the consequences clear,” Ramonna Robinson, president of Denver PR firm Ground Floor Media, recently blogged. “This provides companies with an easy answer and a clear reason to terminate when employees post things on social media like putting pizza up their nose or licking taco shells in the restaurant’s kitchen – just in case those acts alone don’t violate company policy.”
A close shave for Burger King
A female customer bit into her burger from the iconic chain this month, only to find a razor blade laying flat on its side between the meat and a slice of cheese. She was thankfully not injured but understandably shaken, and the ensuing investigation has ruled out the possibility of foul play and instead revealed inadequate employee-training practices used by the franchisee in Willits, Calif. The razor blades, used for cleaning purposes, are kept in the same area where some of the food preparation takes place, and a loose blade found its way onto the woman’s burger.
News of the incident, which took place on June 2, was initially slow to make the rounds on the Internet, but it has since gone viral and prompted the following comment from Burger King:
“Food safety is a top priority for Burger King restaurant globally. Burger King Corp.’s strict food-handling procedures clearly outline that razor blades are not permitted in or near food preparation areas at any time.”
Wendy’s employee apparently missed the Taco Bell story
Fast-food brand executives must be longing for a time when most people didn’t have pocket-size cameras at the ready, because no sooner had Taco Bell’s licking incident begun to quiet down when another pair of employees pulled a similar stunt at an undisclosed Wendy’s location. The photograph, presumably taken by one employee, shows another uniformed employee helping himself to a Frosty milkshake by bending down to ground level and distributing the contents of the ice cream dispenser into his open mouth.
The photo was originally posted Wednesday on Reddit, where it gained overnight success and had found its way onto Business Insider
and The Consumerist
by Thursday morning. Wendy’s was still looking into the incident as of late Friday, and it had issued an initial statement that said, “The incident was totally inappropriate, and we’re taking it very seriously.”
Both the Wendy’s and Taco Bell incidents mirrored the one mentioned above that Domino’s executives faced several years ago, and that company’s swift reaction still serves as a shining example of crisis communications in the digital age.
“The very best example of what to do is what Domino’s did in 2009,” says Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich in Chicago. “Employees posted a video on YouTube of them sneezing onto and doing other disgusting things to food and then serving it to customers. [Domino’s president Patrick Doyle] recorded a video apologizing and posted it in the same spot you’d find the employees’ video. Then the franchisee did the same thing. The video was then circulated through their social networks and posted on their website. The apologies were genuine and transparent. When companies find themselves in these situations—and it’s pretty common a restaurant will—they should look to Domino’s
Denny’s NSA tweet under scrutiny
The only employees who could be blamed if restaurant chain Denny’s finds itself in hot water over a tweet it sent on Tuesday are perhaps members of the corporate marketing department. The company, which is an active if not aggressive user of multiple social media outlets, decided to poke some fun at the White House by posting a promotional message that made a reference to the recent NSA spying scandal.
The message read: “Denny’s knows what you crave before they do,” and showed a photograph of a computer with a monitor, screen, and keyboard, referring to the U.S. government’s now well-publicized and much-debated PRISM program involving the reported monitoring of Internet and email use.
Technology website Mashable
reprinted the tweet later in the week and asked readers their opinion of the brazen message, pointing out that few if any other brands had dared to go there—“there” being the NSA spying scandal—in their social media marketing efforts. Mashable
also pointed out that Denny’s did not repeat the message on its Facebook page.
This fifth and final fast-food fail, if it can even accurately be called that, is a good example of how social media is an infinitely powerful tool that can work both for and against brands depending on how effectively they utilize it. When it comes to responding to situations such as the ones above, however, there is really only one strategy that stands a chance.
“A social media crisis isn’t any different than one that would have happened 10 years ago without the social networks,” says Dietrich. “You will feel pain for a day. You will be the butt of jokes. It’s in how you handle it that makes or breaks you. First, get out there and tell your side of the story before someone else does. Accompany it with these words, ‘I’m sorry,’ and mean it. Tell people what you’re going to do to fix it and make it happen. Then spend the rest of the time listening, not getting defensive, and letting the story die.
“The good news,” she adds, “is someone else will screw up tomorrow and you’ll be old news.”