According to Steven B. Fink, president of Lexicon Communications Corp., which handled E. coli crises for Jack in the Box and West Coast chain Pat & Oscar's, the company has been smart in putting its president on the front line of the problem. But his reassurances about food safety in Taco Bell ads could be undermined by the company's inability to pinpoint the cause of the illnesses.
Blitz in print
On Dec. 12, the fast feeder ran print ads in USA Today and The New York Times, as well as in papers in New Jersey, New York and Delaware. Illnesses at restaurants have been confirmed in all of those states. On the full-page ads, a letter from the chain's president, Greg Creed, stated that Taco Bell has "taken every precaution possible," including testing its entire menu from multiple restaurants in multiple states and switching produce suppliers. The ads explained that the tests all came back negative, except possibly for green onions, which were suspected but not confirmed positive for the bacteria, and that those had been pulled from all stores.
"They're absolutely correct in making him one of the chief spokespersons for the chain," said Mr. Fink. But he said "they made a huge mistake in announcing that they had found the source of the problem and it was corrected when in fact it comes out they had no basis to come out with that statement."
Moreover, he said, Taco Bell will continue to suffer as long as the source of the bacteria goes undetected. "They're going to continue to suffer until they find the source of the outbreak," he said.
Tough to pin down
Yet Taco Bell "may never find that source," said Bill Keegan, director-U.S. crisis and issues management for Edelman, which had represented sibling brand KFC for 25 years. The sources of "a lot of recalls are never pinpointed," he said. With that notion, he praised the chain's response thus far, particularly for putting Mr. Creed on the front line.
The company said earlier this week that it was coordinating the crisis communications in-house, but some press releases have been issued for Taco Bell under the auspices of Ogilvy & Mather PR.
On Dec. 11, Taco Bell issued a statement saying it changed produce suppliers "out of an abundance of caution." It said an independent laboratory tested more than 300 samples of its food ingredients, concluding that none of them contained the E. coli bacteria, including its green onions that had earlier been "presumed positive." The statement said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came to the same conclusion. "We have no information regarding any Taco Bell ingredient linked to this outbreak," said Mr. Creed in the statement.
'No. 1 priority'
"Food safety is Taco Bell's No. 1 priority, and we have taken immediate actions to safeguard the public's health from the moment we learned of an E. coli outbreak associated with our restaurants," said a Taco Bell spokesman via e-mail. "We are focused on cooperating with health officials in their investigation to find the root cause, because nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our customers and employees."
Meanwhile, Taco Bell is taking a beating on the late-night talk-show circuit. On Dec. 5, Jay Leno took a shot at the chain. "Taco Bell has had to close several restaurants because an outbreak of E. coli has made customers sick. As a result, Taco Bell is changing their slogan from 'Think Outside the Bun' to 'Puke Outside the Store.'" The next week David Letterman joked about the outbreak with his "Top Ten Questions to Ask Yourself Before Eating at Taco Bell."
Mr. Keegan pointed out, however, that despite their affinity for late-night shows, the relatively young consumers that fall into Taco Bell's target demo could be a benefit on its road to recovery. "Consumers' preferences die hard," said Mr. Keegan. "Their key audience may be somewhat indifferent to the whole matter. ... They are risk takers and they may not frequent traditional media outlets."