KFC missteps lead to short-term pain

LOUISVILLE, KY: Despite KFC's inability to fully deliver on its grilled-chicken consumer launch promotion, a number of PR pros believe the brand's misstep will actually lead to positive long-term brand awareness.

LOUISVILLE, KY: Despite KFC's inability to fully deliver on its grilled-chicken consumer launch promotion, a number of PR pros believe the brand's misstep will actually lead to positive long-term brand awareness.

“They end up with what seems on surface to be a bad story but in many ways is a great story,” said K.C. Brown, SVP and head of analysis at Cision. “The fact that it has an air of being a mistake gives it an air of authenticity people are willing to forgive.”

Last Tuesday, in partnership with Oprah Winfrey, KFC announced that consumers could download coupons to redeem two free pieces of grilled chicken, two sides, and a biscuit within a 36-hour window. According to Laurie Schalow, director of PR at KFC, the company experienced a total of 10.5-million coupon downloads, and it gave away 4.5 million meals in the first two days. But as its restaurants became overwhelmed by the response, some franchise stores stopped redeeming coupons.

“Oprah is so powerful. Certainly we planed for what we thought would be high redemption,” said Schalow. “Clearly, [the response] was more than that.”

On Thursday, in response to negative consumer reactions at stores and online, the company announced a national “rain-check” program in which it would mail consumers coupons that included the original offer and a free Pepsi, at a stacked, more manageable pace.

“We needed to spread out the demand and redemption,” said Schalow.

The in-house PR team issued a press release apologizing for the inconvenience, and on Friday, KFC president Roger Eaton made a second appearance on the Oprah show to address the issue. Eaton also starred in a video response that the team posted on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and KFC.com, and in a national TV ad about the program this past weekend.

KFC did not enlist a crisis communications agency to assist with the response, nor did it work with AOR Weber Shandwick, according to Schalow.

“Outreach will continue on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and on Youtube,” she said. “We're doing the best we can.”

Don Goldberg, partner and head of crisis communications at Qorvis, though, said the company should have realized the O-effect.

“Anyone involved in consumer marketing would have known this would have been the result,” he said. “Oprah is such a phenomenon... they have no excuse for that.”

Yet, he concedes that the benefit of the overall attention paid to KFC surpasses the negative responses from the short-term inconvenience, “especially in the fast food market where people question health issues.”

One of the underlying issues had to do with the technology KFC used for the coupon download that didn't prevent consumers from making copies, and ultimately contributed to the overwhelming store traffic. The team could have prevented this with special coding to ensure authenticity, according to Tony Obregon, VP of digital media at Cohn & Wolfe.

“They did upset some customers, but because they're offering rain-checks, I think they'll have an opportunity to get those customers back in good standing,” he added.

Paul Gallagher, MD and co-lead of the US crisis team at Burson-Marsteller, agreed.

“Generally speaking, they responded the right way,” he said. "The golden rule is to respond in the same vernacular or platform in which the original message was carried...I think in the end it will probably be a plus for the brand albeit being a short-term pain for them.”

Still, Gallagher suggested that KFC could have better communicated with its franchisees, as well as taught them how to deal with customers in case they ran out of the offering.

“Some of the worst publicity came from those incidents where store clerks got into confrontations with customers about this,” he noted.

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