At first, they were a tad too cheeky about it, and most of their customers weren’t particularly thrilled. Then, they did it right. Offered a simple, what-appeared-to-be-a-heartfelt-apology with a twist of genius copy; and since then, not only has their target audience become more accepting of their apology, they have further propagated the gospel of KFC by eulogising the brilliance of the ad.
Kentucky Fried Chicken, the American fast food restaurant chain that specializes in fried chicken just schooled brands (and individuals) on one of the basics of PR crisis management. The lessons inherent in the restaurant’s handling of what could have spelt a downward spiral in their fortunes is one to learn from.
What happened made little sense. An outfit that was primarily established to sell chicken ran out of it. It got so bad that most outlets of the chain had to be shut while others opened without their main menu item – chicken, on the menu.
The shortage of chicken across the KFC chain of restaurants in the United Kingdom left fast-food fans confused and less-than-pleased. There had been no prior communication. One morning, it had just been impossible to get chicken when customers got to KFC eateries.
However, to check negative perception of the brand, the KFC PR team swung into action as soon as possible. Apart from pasting messages of apology on the windows of their shut outlets, the food giants went ahead to take out a full-page ad in the newspapers to demonstrate how sorry they were. This was after realising its initial “The Chicken crossed the road” post didn’t quite hit the mark with peeved customers.
Nevertheless, the KFC PR crisis management masterclass is not centred around the fact they apologised via the newspapers, rather, it was in the way the apology the was done.
KFC did not shy away from taking responsibility for the integrity-damaging situation, even though they could have tried to. In business, the unexpected happens sometimes no matter how hard we try to tighten all potentially loose ends, and that’s what happened to KFC.
They couldn’t have guessed a courier giant like DHL would do a botched job only four months after being awarded the KFC delivery contract. But they also realised it was none of the customer’s business how they get their chicken delivered. People just want to visit the restaurant and be sure they can get their fried chicken.
The ad’s headline didn’t beat about the bush.It wasn’t coy or patronising. It was simple and straight to the point – “We are sorry”, it read. Now, if a customer didn’t have the time to read through the rest of the content, he was sure to go away with the feeling of being valuable enough to be apologised to by a big brand. He would be assured his patronage meant something to the brand.
The rest of the message was pretty much admitting the “chicken crisis” was not one that should happen with a franchise whose essence is centred around making the best chicken in town. It was unequivocal in its regret of the incident, before going on to explain its cause. It mentioned the steps taken to remedy the crisis and ended with an assurance that things would stabilise soon.
And while the body of the ad had all the elements of a proper apology, the image that showed an empty bucket and a rearranged spelling of the brand name proved to be the ace. The pun that saw KFC respelled as “FCK” – a humorous representation of the food chain’s plight significantly softened the hearts of hitherto upset fans. It was as ingenious as it was apt, and the responses that followed were a testament to how well it resonated with the audience. Even those who claimed indifference to the food outfit were forced to admit the humour in the ad hit a home run with them.
I recall we had a similar situation in Nigeria – Lagos, to be specific. About two years, the same KFC ran out of chicken. I remember visiting an outlet and being told they had no chicken. The difference, however, was that no cogent reason was given. There were no apology notes in or around the restaurant, let alone an attempt to issue a statement to address the unusual development. The “chicken drought” simply lived out its course after a couple of weeks. Talk about a tale of two KFC-domiciled countries.
As corporate or personal brands, there are plenty of insights to glean from the KFC case. Sometimes, a heartfelt apology is all a troubled brand needs to tender to get customers back on its side.
Many PR managers assume they need to spin a convoluted narrative to confuse their audience or an outright denial of responsibility in a bid to appear infallible when all that is required is a genuine “We are sorry.” It’s why an airline would delay a flight for hours, yet fail to tender an apology to passengers or a store would sell substandard products and blame customers for what it is the manufacturer’s fault.
Many issues that have festered into long-term feuds would have been nipped in the bud if the offending party was humble enough to admit they did wrong. Some defunct brands would still be in business today if they took their customers more seriously.
Apologies should however not end with an admission of guilt or plucky word plays.They should be backed by repentance.