Defending your reputation: what can you learn from Taco Bell?

How do you counteract bad press? With more press — and a little calculated humor, if appropriate, doesn’t hurt either.

You may have heard about the class-action lawsuit filed last week against Taco Bell for false advertising. The suit states that Taco Bell’s ground beef contains so little meat it does not qualify under USDA guidelines to be labeled as “beef.” Two California law firms Blood, Hurst & O’Reardon LLP, and Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, filing on behalf of Amanda Obney, recruited a lab to test the beef mixture. The lab’s test results found the chain’s beef filling to be made up of only 35% actual meat. That leaves 65% to things like binders, preservatives, extenders and additives — and therefore the suit asks Taco Bell to stop calling their “seasoned beef” “beef.”

I don’t really care one way or the other about Taco Bell. I don’t eat there. I don’t own any Yum Brands stock. Some people love Taco Bell. Some people hate Taco Bell. (Some people think they’re better than others because they hate it.) I’m far more interested in the theater of how a company chooses to respond and handle their message after being dealt a devastating blow. As for Taco Bell’s first move? I think it has been well played.

In a perfect world bad choices never happen. NBC Universal would have never killed their beloved peacock and created a new logo that looks like it was done in PowerPoint (their new logo was unveiled today). David Letterman would have never slept with coworkers. Taco Bell would have never put “Isolated Oat Product” into their ground beef. And Charlie Sheen would have never — well — done most of the things he does. Hold on a moment though. Which one of these seems to be forgiven? David Letterman of course. He diffused his problem immediately — by coming out quickly with the truth and using humor. Wisely, Taco Bell appears to be doing the same thing.

Taco Bell had several options for dealing with this. Of course they could have ignored it, but that isn’t a sustainable tactic as bad press spiraled out of control — especially in this social media age. They could have issued a strictly legal response and counter-sued for defamation, but that would have seemed weak.

Today, Taco Bell launched a multi-pronged attack: Full-page newspaper ads that boldly quip, “Thank you for suing us.”  The ads appeared Friday’s editions of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times and others. Their website now has a special button with links to information and a YouTube video of Taco Bell President Greg Creed clarifying that their the seasoned beef is “88% beef and 12% secret recipe.” Taco Bell has even created an #ISupportTacoBell hashtag on Twitter and public support seems to be strong.

History seems to indicate this type of approach has a high rate of success. We’ll see if it works for Taco Bell.

One Comment