Analysis: Seniority adds weight to supply chain PR woe

KFC and retail entrepreneur Philip Green talk to Andy Allen about their handling of recent PR crises to have emerged from the supply chain

Last week, Kentucky Fried Chicken found its reputation under threat as animal welfare group PETA launched its 'Deep Fried Cruelty' campaign, accusing KFC suppliers of cruel treatment of chickens.

The campaign started in the US, based on footage alleging cruelty at a chicken farm and went worldwide using KFC as an alleged example of the global issue of cruel treatment of chickens bred for meat.

Last week the campaign hit Britain including PETA demonstrations outside selected KFC restaurants and distribution of leaflets depicting KFC founder Colonel Saunders knifing a chicken.

KFC's response in the UK, handled by its retained agency Freud Communications, involved the issuing of a statement from a spokesman from parent company Yum! Brands, saying that,'KFC is committed to the well-being and humane treatment of chickens'.

It also pointed out that suppliers were obliged to maintain 'strict compliance with our guidelines'.

Freud director Oliver Wheeler says it has been important to question PETA's evidence and defend KFC's practices and compliance with laws governing the sector. He added that there was also a question mark over whether the US-based chicken rearer cited by PETA was even a supplier to KFC.

But KFC's response, particularly the statement from an anonymous company spokesman, comes in contrast to that of retail entrepreneur Philip Green regarding reputation risks to arise from his company's supply chain.

Last November Green's TopShop store found that the Evening Standard was planning to write a story about atrocious working conditions at an East End supplier of its clothing.

Green handled the matter personally, even thanking the paper for bringing the matter to his attention and expressing shock at the conditions described.

He stressed that the offending factory had broken codes of conduct and would be immediately dropped.

Somewhat flamboyantly he added he would burn all clothing from that supplier rather than put it on sale. Journalists were certainly not left searching for follow-up stories.

Speaking to PRWeek, Green says that once the crisis broke it was vital to protect the brand, claiming he had no crisis communications plan, just common sense: 'We were talking about £3,000 worth of merchandise against a background of a company with sales of £3bn.

'I suppose that if the owner of a company handles this personally, takes it seriously and talks to the journalist for 25 minutes, it's more likely to be the end of it once people read the real story. The biggest mistake is to shove this down to the PR department,' he adds.

Charles Lankester, MD of crisis management specialist Limehouse Partners, agrees that the personal touch can be hugely effective. He adds that the fact suppliers' actions may be within the letter of the law is often no defence against bad publicity.

'Conditions at a slaughterhouse, for example, may be completely legal, yet totally unacceptable to consumers,' he says.

It is vital to embrace the issue on an emotional level, as that is how consumers are likely to react.

Wheeler rejects the assertion that KFC's reaction gives the impression that the firm lacks that personal touch to its PR compared to Green's efforts, adding that while the approach differs from Green's the results were just as effective.

'The story broke on 7 January... there has been no further coverage since.

I'd say that was very effective,' says Wheeler.

Bernard Hughes, European public affairs director at Edelman who worked for a number of years handling PR for Tesco, points out that Green enjoyed relative freedom of action compared to a food retailer, such as KFC, which cannot quickly change suppliers because of safety issues.

For Hughes supply chains are an area which has been largely ignored by the PR industry, yet it is the key as retailers and their suppliers increasingly come to share 'brand space'.

More demanding and knowledgable consumers and a high-pressure 24-hour media which finds brands increasingly newsworthy make it far more likely that suppliers' PR problems are likely to spread to the retailer it supplies, says Hughes: 'The retailer and supplier are in it together.'

In PR terms this means that retailers should not only know their suppliers' businesses, but should also know personally the PR directors of companies throughout their supply chain.

And, as retailers increasingly chase lifetime customer loyalty as the holy grail of business, the importance of responding in a way that 'plays well on the ten o'clock news' is paramount.

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