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6 Lessons in Handling a PR Crisis, as Taught by KFC

By Casmin Wisner, Public Relations Specialist at Jive by LogMeIn

By now you’ve probably heard that KFC recently lived through their worst nightmare.

That’s right, they ran out of chicken.

KFC restaurants across England completely shut down due to supplier issues and guests were shocked and livid — several customers even called the police. However, it’s times like this, when businesses experience unprecedented complications, that a public relations team is needed to step up, address issues, apologize, and mend fracturing relationships.

While KFC was deeply embarrassed and worked like mad to fix the issue, their PR team had a stroke of genius in the form of a full-page ad. The ad featured an empty bucket of chicken with the letters of the company’s name jumbled, spelling FCK. A clever play on letters. Below the image was an apologetic paragraph to their customers beginning with:

“A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal.”

The issue may not be 100 percent resolved yet, but there are several things that public relations teams in any industry can learn from the fast food giant.

1. Appoint a team and devise a strategy.

Before a crisis occurs, make sure to appoint a response team and then agree on a strategy. Everyone on the team should have clear job responsibilities and understand whether to be proactive or reactive in their media coverage. They should also be prepared to teach proper protocol to anyone within the company that could be approached to speak to the media.

KFC was able to react so quickly to the incident because they already had a team and a strategy in place for how to approach a public issue. They were organized and were able to act fast with their public announcements and ad placements because they had already built relationships with all the necessary contacts.

2. Gather all the facts and accept blame.

Too often companies issue statements without having all the facts. Gather as much information about the incident as possible before deciding on your tone and creating your message. Not having all the facts or making up information to fill gaps will only make the crisis worse. If necessary, admit that your team is still digging into the cause of the crisis. Your tone should reflect sincerity and remorse towards those affected. If your company is to blame, own it — with the exception of certain legal situations where an apology is an admission of guilt. Don’t play the blame game.

KFC addressed the situation honestly and transparently, letting the public know that they made a mistake, and explaining how they were working to fix the problem. They said, “It’s been a hell of a week, but we’re making progress, and every day more and more fresh chicken is being delivered to our restaurants.”

3. Identify and address the affected parties.

Address anyone involved or impacted by the crisis including customers, employees, stakeholders, business partners and the media. And show gratitude for those that were unnecessarily affected. In KFC’s case, they recognized that their restaurants were not responsible for the incident, and thanked them for all of their hard work trying to remedy the situation.

Show goodwill for those affected and explain how the situation is being fixed and how it will be prevented in the future. These statements and press releases should be prepared in a timely manner so you have content ready to go before you’re approached by the media.

4. Don’t limit communication to just your PR team.

Whether all of your employees are affected or not, they are your best advocates. Confide in them. After a disaster, be transparent with everyone in the company. And keep them up-to-date with resolutions being made, lessons being learned in the process, and any new policies put into effect. This will help maintain the respect of all the people closest to your organization.

5. Be human.

While a logical explanation is often necessary, remember that those impacted are human, and humans are emotional creatures. A logical explanation alone is not enough. Address people’s emotions, concerns and reactions to the incident.

KFC did an incredible job of this. Their ad was humorous because it reflected the emotions of everyone affected by the disaster, without being offensive. It was also apologetic, with the first words on the ad being “We’re sorry.”

6. Keep a close eye on the situation after the crisis.

A PR crisis can cost many companies a decent portion of their customers, affecting their bottom-line. Keep an eye on all communications revolving around the company and the incident. Address customers questions and comments on your website, on review sites, and on social media where appropriate. Responding to negative comments can often help repair a negative brand image.

Staying in tune with your audience is always critical, but especially so during and after a crisis. Establish a system to monitor negative trends so you can address them quickly and positively, before they become a larger problem.

Your company will eventually encounter a PR crisis. It’s only inevitable. So have a plan in place, be honest and transparent with those affected, communicate with your employees, apologize, be human, and keep a close eye on the situation even after the problem has been resolved.

And don’t forget this wise advice from Colonel Sanders:

About the Author: Casmin Wisner is a Public Relations Specialist at Jive Communications, recently acquired by LogMeIn. They are a leader in cloud-based phone systems and Unified Communications.

Casmin enjoys hiking, snow boarding, sky diving, and writing about PR, chicken, marketing, tech and leadership.