IRVINE, CA: Less than three months after the E.coli outbreak in the northeast that caused Taco Bell to shut down a number of its restaurants, the Yum Brands subsidiary once again finds itself in the midst of another crisis communications effort.
This time however the cause of the problem was a group of rats caught on tape running amok inside a Taco Bell/KFC restaurant in Greenwich Village in Manhattan on February 23.
Taco Bell, fellow Yum Brands company KFC, franchisee ADF Cos., and the New York City Department of Health, which gave the restaurant a passing grade the day before the incident, are all currently working to alleviate the fears of consumers. Rob Poetsch, director of public relations for Taco Bell, said the primary message is that this was an isolated incident that took place at one location.
"We've been actively putting out information on the situation to our consumers and to media letting them know this is an isolated case in one restaurant and that we've closed it indefinitely and until further notice we have no plans to open it," Poetsch said. "We're working with the health officials on what are the next steps. Our primary focus is getting to the bottom of this with the health department and getting it fixed."
Poetsch said Ogilvy PR is providing assistance.
The Yum subsidiary wasn't the only organization to receive criticism in this situation. The day before the news report, an inspector from The New York City Department of Health found 76 fresh rodent droppings while inspecting the restaurant but allowed it to stay open only telling management to clean up, sanitize its equipment, and hire an exterminator.
That inspector was removed from field duty by the health department. The Department of Health did not return phone calls before press time.
The day of the incident Taco Bell and KFC posted statements on their respective sites. Both posted update statements on February 27 and on February 28, as well as a videotaped message from Emil Brolick, president of US Yum Brands, apologizing for the incident. In his message, Brolick said Yum Brands was working with New Jersey-based ADF to close their "uninspected restaurants in New York until they are fully inspected by the health department and given a clean bill of health. We will not compromise on our food and restaurant quality."
Marisa Smith, marketing director at ADF, said "At this point it's just a handful of restaurants and we're working closely with the health department and we'll have the restaurants open when they have a clean bill of health and again this is just a precautionary measure."
Like Poetsch, Smith said the majority of media inquiries have been coming from the New York media. On March 1, ADF issued a statement saying it was embarrassed by the situation and "certain restaurants did not meet the very high standards that we set for ourselves."
Tim Tinker, SVP at Widmeyer Communications and a risk communications expert, said that while the respective parties did an overall good job responding, they didn't follow through with next steps.
"They started by acknowledging and taking responsibility for what had happened," Tinker explains. "And from a crisis communications standpoint that's incredibly important."
Tinker believes they could have done a better job of laying out a clearer message about the steps they are actually going to be taking. "They were saying things like, 'It was a problem and [is] unacceptable,'" Tinker says. "But at the same time, it was an opportunity for them to [lay out] the specific action steps they were going to be taking in the next 24 or 48 hours and give people a sense of how they're going to be addressing the problem in concrete terms."
Tinker said another smart move would have been to make mention of a few subject matter experts the company planned to bring in to help resolve this problem and make sure it doesn't happen again.
"This happened at two levels so the same thing could be said about the health department," Tinker added.
"On one hand, I think it was sensationalism. It was one Taco Bell in Greenwich Village; there are rats in Manhattan," said Sherri Daye Scott, editor of QSR, a trade magazine for quick serve executives and operators. "But Taco Bell's response to it is so lukewarm, especially coming off the E.coli thing. I would've expected them to have a much better machine in place."
She added that Taco Bell's messaging that is was only one isolated restaurant is "corporate speak."
"For that average customer, it rings hollow. It should in plain language: this is an operator, this is what happened, but it shouldn't have happened," Daye Scott said. "Not that this is not our brand. They were too defensive and lukewarm in that defense."