“Nacho” Best Move: Lessons From Taco Bell’s Taco-Licking Disaster

06.07.2013 | Sheridan Smalley

In case you haven’t heard (sorry to any fast-food lovers for bearing the bad news), Taco Bell recently came under heat for a particularly unappetizing photo posted by one of its employees. The photo featured the employee licking a tall stack of empty taco shells on the job and went viral, creating a backlash of re-posts, disgusted Tweets and vows to never eat at the food chain again.

In response, Taco Bell released a statement reassuring the public and denouncing the employee’s actions. Representatives also explained that the taco shells were supposedly part of a training exercise, and were in the process of being thrown away at the time of the photo rather than being served to customers. Perhaps the situation could have been much worse, but the issue still stands that the employee—who represents the company—demonstrated a serious lack in judgment that caused a blow to the company’s reputation.

Incidents like this, in which the public has an adverse reaction to an action tied to a company, warrant major response by the parent company to avoid a permanent effect on its image. An examination of Taco Bell’s handling of the PR disaster offers several lessons for PR professionals facing similar future situations in crisis management.

First, a few things Taco Bell did right:

1)      Immediate Response. Right away, Taco Bell representatives released the statement admitting to the situation and chastising the employee’s actions, a prime example of showing action, not reaction. Instead of waiting it out until they had time to investigate the claims, Taco Bell spoke up and addressed the issue head-on. Honesty and remorse are crucial during a PR crisis, and Taco Bell nailed it by readily admitting the situation and denouncing the behavior as absolutely unacceptable by company standards.

2)      Transparency. The incident showcases the necessity of building a trustworthy, transparent relationship with consumers about product quality and brand values. Taco Bell did a good job in not just owning up to the situation, but explaining the background and context to mitigate public concern. The most updated press release offered clearly labeled sections such as “What is the Issue?” (explaining the error) and “How Did This Happen?” (the context). It doesn’t make the behavior excusable, but openly explaining the situation with a detailed description of what occurred offers a level of transparency that consumers appreciate—and just might help them forgive you. Be truthful and open, without making excuses.

3)      Addressing the issue as long as necessary. In the event of a disaster, don’t just make an initial statement and shove it under the rug. If customers dwell on the situation, then continue to address their concerns. As the Taco Bell crisis has consistently made headlines since first coming to light, Taco Bell has continued to respond with updated information. Ongoing attention applied to the issue shows genuine concern for the matter rather than just trying to cover it up, which goes a long way for the integrity of a company.

And one thing Taco Bell could have done a bit better:

Show, don’t just tell. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” applies to PR crises. Taco Bell did take some commendable actions—admitting the issue and firing the employee in question, for example. However, Taco Bell’s elusive promise that this will never happen again doesn’t effectively reassure the public. Instead, PR crises should be seen as opportunities for positive change. Show customers how the incident was an anomaly by taking direct internal actions to improve product quality and company conduct, and make these efforts visible to the public. In Taco Bell’s case, for example, hiring practices and employee training could certainly be improved; making this visible to customers would reflect positively on Taco Bell’s leadership, management and future product quality.

We all dread the day that we face a PR disaster. However, case studies such as that of Taco Bell offer valuable lessons in dealing with the crises that our own clients may face. In the midst of catastrophe, it’s better to confront the issue immediately as well as take obvious and visible actions to both fix the mistake and prevent its future occurrence.

At the end of the day, Taco Bell did a decent job in addressing its latest PR crisis, and it’s doubtful that its sales will take a lasting hit. So, remember the importance of good PR next time you dive into that Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco—which, by the way, was reportedly the type of taco shell in question. Enjoy.



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Filed under: COMMUNIQUÉ PR, Crisis Communications, Media, Positioning, PR trends, Reputation Management

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