How KFC Is Fighting Rumors of Scary Mutant Chickens in China

Two Takeaways: The Brand Filed Lawsuits But Kept Its Sense of Humor

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KFC has had two and a half rough years in China.
KFC has had two and a half rough years in China. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

In case you saw any strange rumors circulating on Chinese social media, KFC wants to clarify something: No, it did not bio-engineer chickens with eight legs and six wings.

"If there were such a chicken, KFC would certainly be qualified to apply for a Nobel Prize in biology," KFC China President Qu Cuirong said in a statement in Chinese.

The brand used a touch of wit and sarcasm as it addressed how it's tackling rumors shared on Chinese social platform WeChat. But it also got serious. KFC said it had filed lawsuits against three local companies that operated WeChat content accounts it accused of spreading defamatory rumors about the brand, sometimes accompanied by photoshopped images of mutated chickens. (It has debunked similar rumors before.)

The chicken tales might seem absurd, but social media rumors have sometimes had a devastating effect on brands in China. In 2012-13, during a time of severe Chinese-Japanese political tensions, a false rumor spread online alleging that the Hong Kong-listed company behind Chinese noodle brand Master Kong was secretly sending money to Japan, and a boycott call was launched. At the time, media reported that the company lost $2.4 billion in market capitalization during the months of rumors.

In some cases, it's suspected that brands are paying "black PR" agencies in China to wage social smear campaigns against competitors. (That's always difficult to prove, and it's not clear whether that has been an issue for KFC.)

Darren Burns, president of Weber Shandwick China, said he would advise clients to go on the offensive if they have evidence of being smeared, and that they should feel more emboldened to take action because China is now insisting on the importance of the rule of law. But they need to be mindful of their tone.

"On the Chinese social-media space, the way you go on the offensive is to be engaging or even humorous in your approach," Mr. Burns said. "You can't have a chastising tone of voice -- to make a serious point you almost need to make fun of yourself and be irreverent and self-deprecating."

Chinese food fears
Often, social media rumors have tapped into generalized fears about the quality of food in China, where there have been scares over rat meat disguised as lamb and cooking oil scooped out of the gutter and reused. The worst case was in 2008, when dairy producers added melamine to baby formula, killing six children.

KFC's parent company, Yum Brands, has had a two-and-a-half-year rough patch in China starting with a media report of excess antibiotics in some chicken, and after later revelations that a minor supplier was using expired meat. About half of Yum's revenues come from China. KFC has tried a range of strategies to counter negative sentiment on social media. At one point, a campaign asked consumers to write poems about chicken.

In this case, KFC is asking three companies to pay compensation up to $242,000 each, to apologize and to stop spreading such rumors. The companies involved ran WeChat accounts including "Practical Life Tips," "Chinese Buddhist Quotations" and "Ha Ha Funny Videos." KFC said it had found 4,000 defamatory messages that were read 100,000 times. Besides the scary chicken, one other post involved shots of live maggots on chicken -- KFC said the meal wasn't fresh but had been left out unprotected.

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