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The KFC approach to corporate reputation in a crisis

KFC has had a February to forget: a new supply chain partner (DHL) that struggled to deliver its contract, leading to the majority of its restaurants being closed and those that were open serving a limited menu, angry customers venting on social media and even dialling 999 to complain, and allegations of food waste during the crisis.

The shortage of fresh chicken for its restaurants was even one of the most noticed news stories of the week. While KFC’s and DHL’s supply chain has fallen well short of the mark, the fried chicken restaurant’s crisis response has been excellent.

There are three elements to a good response during any corporate crisis: offering a clear full apology, owning the issue and committing to preventing a repeat, and regular, clear communication.

KFC has demonstrated all three.

The apology

The worst apologies are passive (“We apologise for any inconvenience caused…”), obscure the problem (“A partner company failed to deliver to agreed standards…”), or minimise the problem (“Some customers may find a small number of stores…”). The best need just two words: “We’re sorry”.

Online, on social media, and in print, KFC have been direct, admitted the error and apologised. KFC have explained the source of the problem, but never tried to minimise or downplay it.

During a crisis, it can be tempting to try and blame sub-contractors and third parties (like new logistics partner DHL). KFC have avoided this and accepted responsibility. Behind-the-scenes, of course, it is important to understand why the problem occurred and how to avoid it in future, but this shouldn’t happen in public.

KFC have also, rightly, recognised that they have multiple stakeholders. As well as apologising to customers, KFC have publicly thanked their franchise partners (like most fast food restaurants, many KFC outlets are owned independently and run under franchise) and staff for their hard work.

Regular, clear communication

In a crisis – be it corporate or political – a lack of communication can be as damaging as the original problem. KFC provided regular updates as to the cause of the problem, their progress fixing it, and even created a new micro-site that listed which of its outlets were open at any time.

Full page adverts in the national press ensured a broad reach for the apology and message that the business was, slowly, getting back to usual.

The long-term impact

Despite KFC’s strong crisis management, the chicken outage will have long-term impacts.

No business can expect to fail to deliver its core service for more than a week and not see its reputation damaged. British Airways had similar operational difficulties last summer, when IT system crashed, and the airline saw its Reputation Credit Score plummet. KFC will have to cope too with losing a week’s revenue, as well as having to negotiate with franchises and employees over compensation for any lost income and wages. Beyond this KFC’s sector is not one that enjoys a strong reputation.

One, unexpected, reputation boon from the crisis for KFC, however, will be a much greater public awareness that each KFC restaurant relies on deliveries of fresh, real chicken – rather than anything frozen or prepared.

Laurence Stellings

Laurence is a corporate reputation expert who is primarily focused on helping clients to develop and implement evidence-based strategies to best communicate their messages, manage their reputations and understand their key audiences.

Many well-established corporate clients such as Asda, Google, Sky, and RBS, as well as public bodies like the BBC and The Charity Commission and several political parties and campaigns have benefited from Laurence’s strategic counsel and expertise in a wide range of research techniques including stakeholder audits, key driver and segmentation analysis, political polling, and deliberative events.

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