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  • Writer's pictureCrisis Shield

#KFCcrisis: How to respond to third-party issues (and how to use humour in your crisis response)

By Michelle Wang and James Fitzpatrick

KFCcrisis crisis communication case study

What happened

In February 2018, KFC branches in the UK ran out of chicken. Customers were the first to report the problem, using Twitter to complain that a number of KFC branches had unexpectedly closed.

The next day, KFC published a statement on its UK and Ireland Twitter account confirming the problem, with around 700 of the fast-food chain’s 870 restaurants across the country forced to shut down for roughly one week. Later statements were published to provide answers to what had gone wrong.

KFC's response to the chicken shortage

The shortage was a result of KFC’s decision to change their UK suppliers from Bidvest Logistics to DHL, who had won the contract by providing a cheaper alternative. The suppliers had differing distribution systems, with a system comprising of six warehouses run by Bidvest being changed to one distribution centre run by DHL.

KFC eventually put up a webpage where customers could check which stores had been reopened, albeit with limited menus and restricted opening hours, while others continued to stay closed until the problem could be completely rectified.

The shortage was predicted to last up to a month.

KFC later took out a full-page advertisement in two national papers in the same month, publishing a second apology for the nation-wide shortage under a picture of an empty KFC bucket with “FCK” emblazoned on the bucket instead of the franchise’s name along with the headline “we’re sorry”.

KFCcrisis communication response

The crisis response scorecard: A+

Let’s be honest, a chicken franchise running out of the one product it’s known for (chicken) is nothing short of a disaster. A sign that your customers are feeling the consequences is when they start contacting the police about this issue:

Police response to KFCcrisis

Luckily for the brand’s longevity, KFC’s response was equal to the task; quick, comprehensive, humble and on-brand. We rate it an A+.

A scan of the KFC’s website and social channels shows relatively quick responses (within 24 hours) to the considerable amount of consumer outrage and queries. When answering questions, the organisation focused on outlining known facts and explaining what they’re doing to resolve the issue. This follows our suggested crisis response model:

  1. Explain the facts (what we know)

  2. Explain what we don’t know yet

  3. Explain what we’re doing to fix it

  4. Explain what you (the customer) can do (e.g. where to get more info or on-going updates)

We keep it simple for a reason: people don’t care for the broader context of the issue (see Cerulo and Ruane's research in this article about apology types), they want to know the simple facts and what you’re doing to fix it – and then how it affects them.

KFC were disciplined and consistent in sticking to this simple recipe, even when answering difficult questions like what was happening to wasted chicken stuck at the distribution centre.

They didn’t throw the delivery partner under the bus. While they explained that’s where the problem lay, they reiterated how complex delivering to 900 stores can be.

This is really important. It may be tempting to finger point and try and shift all responsibility to the third party but research shows that this is unlikely to resonate well with your customers (Cerulo and Ruane 2014). They don’t care for context; ultimately it’s your responsibility to serve them the product they’re expecting, so it’s also your responsibility to fix whatever the disruption is.

KFC then pulled out their clever weapon of injecting humour and humility in the vast majority of their responses.

As we outlined in our 5 tips for dealing with negativity on social media, humour can be incredibly effective (when appropriate and relevant to the brand) at demonstrating personality and humility, and relieving tension.

Emblazoning your chicken buckets with “FCK” did nothing short of just that; showed humility and relieved tension by invoking laughter (in my case, fits of it).

Some analysts criticised this approach, suggesting KFC’s comprehensive response only served to make people more aware that KFC was suffering a chicken shortage. We disagree. While it may have alerted some who would have been otherwise unaware, the effectiveness of KFC’s response served as a demonstration of how well prepared the company is to respond to mistakes and complicated situations. Most people accept that things will inevitably go wrong from time to time but they’ll often be more interested in how you react. Here’s your opportunity to show what your company is made of.

Turns out, it paid off... as AdWeek's analysis reveals, apart from winning ad campaign awards, the stunt helped swing back customers, generating an impressive amount of positive reactions:

KFC's wins back fans - AdWeek

Planning ahead

If Brexit goes ahead, supply chain issues like this one are likely to become more frequent for companies operating in the UK. It's worthwhile taking note of KFC's response in this case and planning for how your company might respond if faced with similar complications.

At Crisis Shield, we recently sat down and planned out an example Crisis Communication Plan for a fictional company responding to the various effects of Brexit (e.g. supply chain complications). We'll be revealing parts of this strategy in our up-coming articles and case studies but don't hesitate to contact us in the meantime if this a process you'd like to investigate for your company.

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