IRVINE, CA: Taco Bell is hoping to recover from its recent E.coli 0157:H7 outbreak by ensuring customers that its restaurants are safe and taking a stance on produce safety.
Rob Poetsch, director of public relations for Taco Bell, said the company is now going from the crisis stage to the recovery stage.
"Last week we were called by Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania to have lunch with our president at a Taco Bell to show his support," Poetsch said. "Moving forward we're continuing to talk to our customers and poll them on a regular basis to find out how they feel towards the brand and if we're doing the right things and we're hearing very positive sentiments from them in terms of favorability towards the brand as well as purchase intent in the future."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the outbreak - which affected New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania - over on December 14. Taco Bell marked the event by running ads in 15 newspapers in the affected areas, major dailies such as USA Today and the New York Times and a TV spot.
Taco Bell will continue to work with AOR Cohn & Wolfe and Ogilvy PR, which it hired last year when it made its trans-fat free announcement, on the matter.
Robert Mathias, managing director of Ogilvy's Washington office, said: "Going forward we'll work with them on recovery efforts and support them as they communicate about the next steps they'll take as a company. Greg Creed [president of Taco Bell] stressed that he wanted Taco Bell to take a leadership role on the issue of produce safety and we're beginning to work with them on some of those efforts."
During the crisis, Ogilvy provided strategic counsel and helped arrange for press interviews, which had to be put together quickly due to the changing nature of results found in CDC, Taco Bell and the Food & Drug Administration's testing.
"We literally had less than a few hours to orchestrate press teleconferences based on what the CDC and FDA were announcing," Poetsch said. "They did an outstanding job in helping us respond very quickly to those incoming reports."
Cohn & Wolfe helped staff Taco Bell's media hotline. Poetsch estimates the company did over 1,000 press interviews in a two-week period. Creed did two satellite media tours, a press teleconference with over 100 members, and multiple tours of restaurants meeting with managers, franchisees, employees, and customers, as well as a number of question and answer b-roll feeds to local and national news outlets.
Poetsch said understanding and effectively and quickly conveying the seemingly ever-changing story was one of the biggest challenges of the crisis.
"People wanted information and our goal was to provide them with as much information as possible," Poetsch said. "It was a little bit challenging because of the nature of the tests and we're also waiting to hear what the CDC and FDA had learned. There were a lot of changing bits of information on a constant basis and there were a lot different parties involved from local level all the way up to the state and federal level and our goal was to work with all of them and help them solve this."
He added: "Providing information consistently and in a transparent and open way is something we wanted to do every step of the way. Sometimes there weren't answers to questions that we were waiting on but we always stuck to providing information as quickly and as soon as we could. That was probably the key."
When asked what he thought Taco Bell did extremely well during the entire crisis, Mathias said it was the ongoing and immediate involvement of Creed that other corporations should try to emulate during similar situations.
"There was absolute and immediate ongoing involvement from the president on down," Mathias said. "Creed was clearly in charge of this thing, he was clearly well educated and up-to-speed on the events, and he was clear on his desire to accurately and quickly communicate facts on what we knew about the state of the outbreak and what Taco Bell was doing about it to the public."
"What was great for us," he continued, "is that there was none of this corporate bureaucracy of people saying ‘We're going to have run that up the chain.' The chain is in the room and the chain is calling the shots and that made our job a lot easier."
While Poetsch believes Taco Bell did and continues to do a good job of keeping the public informed of the status of locating the source of the outbreak, he believes it's still too early to call the effort a success.
"What we're focusing on now is working with authorities to find the source of this and help them to improve the safety of the food chain and we have committed to participating in a coalition of industry and food-safety experts and government regulations to ensure the safety of produce supply," Poetsch said.