Finger lickin', not finger pointin'

2nd March 2018

As members of the British public, we are at home with the idea that McDonald’s regularly fails to dispense ice cream. One person has even created an app to help their fellow McFlurry fans decipher whether local machines are functioning. However, February taught us that there’s one thing fast food fans just can’t tolerate: KFC running out of chicken.

This became apparent after the spectacular failure of KFC’s supply chain, leading to a chicken shortage so severe that 575 outlets were forced to close on Monday 19. The #KFCCrisis was born. So outraged were the British public that police in Tower Hamlets were forced, via Twitter, to ask constituents to stop calling them about it.

What led us to this point of chicken chaos? In October last year, KFC awarded DHL and Quick Service Logistics the contract for supply and distribution of food products, packaging and consumables to its UK restaurants. DHL took over the logistics on 14 February. By 16 February, KFC had started to shut down locations after managers complained of delays to deliveries—and by 18 February only 266 of 900 restaurants in the UK were open.

In what could be the best chicken pun ever included in an official statement, the GMB trade union – which has members at previous KFC logistic partner Bidvest Logistic – said it had warned that the move would have consequences, saying: “we tried to warn KFC this decision would have consequences—well now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

This was not the only magnificent piece of comms activity at work. KFC itself has been widely praised by the media industry for its handling of the situation. When PR Week put the question “How do you think KFC handled this week’s crisis?” to its readers, 87 per cent agreed that it was ‘just the right recipe’ and that more brands should behave similarly.

KFC has held its hands up and apologised unreservedly, avoiding finger pointing and maintaining its cool. Described as “calmly cluck[ing]” by the Drum, and a “masterclass in crisis management” by Frank PR founder Andrew Bloch, the brand’s initial statement read: “the chicken crossed the road, just not to our restaurants”. It went on to reference the complex logistics involved in hauling chicken across nearly 1,000 restaurants, and gave a “shout out” to the teams working to get them back up and running. The message was clear: we messed up, but we’re working on it.

Two days later, on 19 February, KFC had created a site to help chicken-desperate punters find their nearest open KFC restaurant, along with information on whether a full or limited menu would be on offer.

The references to the KFC team working hard behind the scenes are admirable, particularly because the British public aren’t the only ones to be wounded. Many KFCs are operated by independent franchisees, whose bottom line will be severely harmed by this catastrophic mistake. This was nicely summarised in its “FCK” print ad that ran in the Sun and Metro on 23 February, ending a week of headlines and tweets by offering “endless thanks” to its teams.

KFC’s reactive strategy has proven so effective that, ten days after the #KFCCrisis broke, the Bristol Post ran the headline: “Is the KFC chicken crisis just a massive publicity stunt?” According to a poll on its website, 35 per cent of people agreed that it was. The Guardian reported that independent chicken joints have benefited, with Chicken George in Luton reporting that its business doubled during the fall-out. According to Google Trends, searches for fried chicken recipes peaked too—have we seen the start of a home-made chicken renaissance?

Publicity stunt or not, we just hope KFC can handle the expected stampede that arrives at its door when buckets are back on the menu!