KFC reveals a plan well-hatched

Along with Knock, Knock gags, Why did the chicken cross the road? punchlines usually elicit a groan, but they recently prompted a different reaction after KFC hijacked the joke to explain why its stores had run out of that most vital of ingredients: chicken.

Not since Debbie McGee threw her leg over her dancing partner on Strictly has the entire nation been so shocked. Forget the Beast from the East, this was the feast with the least.

The shortage made headline news. Customers were incensed. Indeed, such was their anger that some police forces had to make statements pointing out that, while frustrating, the closure of a local KFC was not actually an emergency.

But let’s be honest, it was a clucking disaster for KFC: its 900 stores either had to close or to serve a limited menu. Without chicken, Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe is simply a pile of herbs and spices.

The management must have been spitting feathers, and ruing the November day that they switched distributors from experienced Bidvest to DHL. (In a classic example of counting poultry before they are hatched, the German-owned logistics company had promised to ‘set a new benchmark’ for delivering chicken.)

It’s the type of crisis in which lawyers usually love to meddle. Don’t admit guilt. Don’t say sorry. In fact, if you can possibly manage, say absolutely nothing. Some senior executives must have felt that a low profile was best, but transparency prevailed. KFC didn’t chicken out of its obligations. The fast food chain took to social media to explain the situation and, in doing so, demonstrated how the rules of crisis management have changed. Its response was fast, witty and apologetic. When Burger King and Iceland tried to exploit the situation, KFC replied with good humour.

But at all times, it kept customers informed - directing them to its Crossed-the-road microsite to find out the situation in their local stores. And, as these started to re-open, it launched a #Wheresmychicken Twitter service, directing customers to their nearest branch. It was authentic and true to its brand.

KFC demonstrated that it understands its customers. The company has an established tone of voice that allowed it to interact with them and to use humour to deflect any anger. It’s a young person’s brand, so the messages were kept light. There were no formal statements by senior executives, instead it posted Instagram-style updates when more than 140 characters were required. And when KFC finally did use traditional media, its full page apology featuring a bespoke FCK logo on its iconic bucket was widely lauded.

Its acuity with social media was reminiscent of O2's actions when it suffered a major outage in 2012, but the mobile phone operator had prepared for such a crisis (although, like KFC , it had a well-established tone of voice). While KFC may have conducted a wide range of crisis scenarios, from product recalls to regional delivery issues, it is highly unlikely that it ever prepared for a nationwide shortages of its most vital ingredients, which makes its reaction even more admirable. 

As the financial ramifications of the crisis begin to unfold, it is likely that the story will move from social to traditional media where journalists can dissect what this means for DHL and if, indeed, it retains the contract. But in the meantime, the billion dollar chicken shop must be basking in the love for its brand that flowed over social media and happy that, finally, it has got across the message that its chicken is fresh and not frozen. Even if it’s not actually in the stores.