Video originally shot and broadcast by New York's WNBC-TV showing rats overrunning a KFC/Taco Bell restaurant was quickly uploaded to video-sharing websites and available for viewing around the world. | ALSO: Comment on this issue in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
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The video of a dozen rats scampering around a New York KFC/Taco Bell restaurant was clearly bad news for the reputation of the Yum Brands businesses, which were already reeling from an E. coli episode last year that some believe has contributed to a Taco Bell sales slump.
The rampaging rodents are also a reminder to the marketing world that today's PR crises will sometimes be mini horror movies, and their impact can exceed written or even photographed reports.
No crisis is just a local crisis. The rats running amok at the Greenwich Village eatery were first reported on early-morning TV news by a New York station, WNBC-TV, following a consumer call to its tip line. But by the time Yum Brands put out a statement addressing the issue on its home page and media wires -- 2:06 p.m. EST -- the stomach-churning video had already raced over the internet and made it to numerous other TV stations.
Even then, the statement failed to acknowledge that the repercussions could be more widespread. "This is an isolated incident at a single restaurant at 331 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village, New York, and it is totally unacceptable," said the statement, attributed jointly to KFC and Taco Bell. "The restaurant is closed and we will not allow it to be reopened until it has been sanitized and given a complete clean bill of health."
The response seems to indicate that Yum saw the crisis as local -- a huge miscalculation. "There's nothing more viral on the negative side than rats," said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer, Nielsen BuzzMetrics. "In the world of fast food, hygiene is the No. 1 talk driver, and rats take it to food-hygiene-on-steroids level. Rats are Defcon 5."
Beyond the above statement, Taco Bell and KFC would not discuss their response to the crisis nor whether a PR agency was involved.
Rat story won't go away
But Steven Fink, president of crisis-management firm Lexicon Communications, said the companies were blind to the scope of the problem. "The biggest problem with the internet is not that it is widespread but that [a story] is out there forever. This story will live on the internet for all time. "
So what could Yum have done? Mr. Blackshaw said the chains failed to leverage the web for what he called "defensive branding," to make sure positive messages are heard in the sea of negative chatter charging across the internet. By midday Friday, more than 1,000 blogs had cited or spread the story and footage, according to a Technorati search. A search on Google News for "rats and KFC" yielded 443 stories and "rats and Taco Bell" some 600 stories posted on websites of publications from Wyoming to the U.K.
Meanwhile, consumers looking for reassuring information from the marketers had to work hard to find it. One has to look for official statements buried deep within Taco Bell and KFC home pages rather than on the front page. (The statements were placed on the press pages in the company-information menus.)
Search engine impact
Moreover, the marketers failed to buy search terms to proactively push messages on how the brands are fixing the problems. So at some points on Feb. 23, a Google search for "rats" and "KFC" resulted in sponsored links for KFC, followed by a host of exterminator links. "There was no evidence of any advertising against negative search terms on Google," said Mr. Blackshaw. "This is a missed opportunity because the organic search results generally reinforced negative perceptions about food hygiene."
Compounding matters, of course, is the fact that this is the second major food-safety nightmare at Yum Brands -- this time encompassing two of its chains -- as the holding company attempts to recover from the late November E. coli incident in dozens of Taco Bells. Having fumbled the crisis plan and communications on the food poisoning, this latest incident could further threaten the company's recovery and brand for the long term.
"The reality of crisis management is that crises do not occur in a vacuum," said Mr. Fink. "The problem is Taco Bell has so mishandled the E. coli outbreak that this coming on TV compounds the problem. It underscores that the restaurants are not taking care of business when it comes to the health of their customers."
'Big strike for Yum Brands'
"This is a big strike two against Yum Brands," said Ben McConnell, author of "Citizen Marketers" and word-of-mouth marketing consultant, noting that the story is anything but local. "This has the potential for a JetBlue-style congressional response."
What marketers are dangerously failing to take into account, he said, is that "Discussion online is fueling the discussion happening offline. This is a perfect example of how you need to have a very fast web-based response to a crisis so you are providing information -- not spin or distorting the facts for people, but providing information that helps neutralize it."