I was asked by a reporter for Ragan to comment on the Taco Bell lawsuit alleging false advertising about meat in the company’s products. Here’s a sample of the news coverage about this lawsuit. Taco Bell, again a little late for the initial news reports issued this statement on their website:
President and Chief Concept Officer
Taco Bell Corp.
Here was my take on this as a reputation crisis:
eing somewhat by nature skeptical of enterprising attorneys, particularly those who file class action lawsuits in search of a class to represent, I see this primarily as a very effective marketing ploy by an attorney. If they were serious about addressing concerns with Taco Bell and serious about false advertising, the right and ethical thing to do would be to approach the company first and only seek the kind of publicity they got if and when they could get no answers or satisfaction from the company.
But, this is the kind of bad publicity, litigation-based risk that many companies face in our litigious society. Clearly the attorney filing this has received a lot of press attention. But, it doesn’t seem to be generating a huge amount of social media buzz. Will it hurt the company? It likely will if the attorney’s claims prove to be absolutely true, regardless of whether it qualifies as false advertising. We don’t want to be told we are getting meat when it is mostly filler and spices. However, Taco Bell has drawn a very clear line in the sand. In their statement they say: Unfortunately, the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later — and got their “facts” absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food.”
If the lawyers got it absolutely wrong then the damage to Taco Bell may be minimal and probably more than made up for all the free press using their brand. But, like Roger Clemens, his absolute denial about wrong doing ended up destroying his credibility. Again, the battle is all about credibility. Some will look at this like I do and doubt the attorney. Many will judge Taco Bell guilty as charged based on the mere accusation.
I do like the fact that Taco Bell in their statement said they are suing the attorney for the false statements. That gives the impression of confidence in their claims that what the attorney is saying is completely false. But, it also raises the stakes in the credibility game. It is something I have advised clients in the past. If they have opponents, competitors or lawyers looking to make a name, who are abusing the legal system for their own gain, I think one of the best things to do is to use that same legal system against them.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Worst case for Taco Bell is that this triggers a cascade of complaints against them, all of which will be well covered by the press given this story. But, they may find that the coverage also helps bring their brand to the forefront and if they don’t lose credibility by what they say or do, it may blow over and even help them.
Going beyond that initial analysis, I’m asking myself the question what would I do if I was the chief reputation management advisor to Taco Bell?
The first question I would ask is: how could this get worse? A common mistake is to deal with the crisis at hand without thinking through the cascade effect of most crises. This lawsuit is blood in the water to the sharks in the media looking to attract eyes to their stories. I’m guessing right now that a number of them are scouring all possible sources for consumer complaints against Taco Bell so they can build a case for the company as “rogue,” “irresponsible” and demonstrating a pattern of deception and blowing off customer concerns. It is in the nature of today’s media to create the “black hats” that make their stories dramatic and compelling. Certainly, a quick look at Twitter conversations about this shows that a number of customers are quick to conclude that the lawsuit’s claims are absolutely right.
Assuming it could get worse, what can Taco Bell do? I think they sent the right message with their statement. They will vigorously defend their reputation. By stating they are taking legal action they are attempting to turn the tables and presenting themselves as the victim. Again, my bias is such that I believe they are, but if they are not, if the claims are accurate and Taco Bell ends up apologizing, agreeing to change their meat recipe then their credibility is damaged greater by this aggressive response. It is risky, but not if they are absolutely certain of their position.
But that statement is not enough. If this situation looks to get legs in the media or social media (and monitoring is job one right now), then they better be ready to move really fast. They will need to aggressively communicate these key messages (not in these words): They are the victim of nasty false claims by an attorney looking to generate business. Their meat products are what they say they are. They have kept millions of customers happy for XX years and are committed to complete customer satisfaction.
They need to be prepared to communicate those messages in the mainstream media (through both paid advertising and aggressive efforts to get interviews), and through social media. They need to engage their critics directly, positively and firmly. Above all, they must protect their credibility as if their future depends on it, which it does.
Of course, to move fast, they have to prepare now. The real judgment call will be their assessment of the traction this is getting and whether by over-reacting they exacerbate the negative publicity. Their should be no judgment call at all in preparing to act fast and hard.