WASHINGTON – Frogs and fingers. These odd items have been found in fast-food meals recently,rupturing relationships between companies and consumers. After the authorities have been called and complaints made,what can companies do to regain the trust of patrons and move forward?
“Stick to the truth,” said Janey Bishoff,chief executive officer of Boston-based Bishoff Communications.
Strategies for regaining support have included giveaways or letters to the community. In some cases,owners have found that taking no action at all has been a successful way to calm consumers.
The most recent case involved a San Jose,Calif.,Wendy's restaurant,where in March a woman claimed to have found a human finger in her chili. The woman,Anna Ayala,39,has been charged with attempting to extort money from the fast-food chain and remains in jail.
Although Wendy's is no longer being faulted,the company suggested that all of its restaurants participate in a “customer appreciation” free Frosty promotion over the weekend,said Dennis Lynch,Wendy's senior vice president of communications.
Four friends eating at a Wendy's here Sunday night said the free Frosty desserts influenced their decision to dine there,although none of them had chili.
Andrew Stoddard,23,a Capitol Hill press assistant,said when he heard about the chili mishap it “made him wonder” about Wendy's credibility,but it did not turn him against the company because “the chances of it happening again were slim.”
Friend Melisa Mowry,25,a special events manager,agreed.
“Wendy's reputation is set in most people's minds,” she said,“It didn't damage my perception of Wendy's.”
Wendy's has lost significant business since the March incident. The company gave away more than 15 million Frostys over the weekend,but Lynch said it was worth the sacrifice to improve business.
“In our 35-year history,we have never given away a product,” Lynch said.
Restaurants and other businesses can find guidance in how several companies have handled crises over the past two decades.
After several bottles of Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol were found to have been contaminated with cyanide that killed seven people in 1982,the company launched an advertising campaign,offered discount coupons,conducted a massive repackaging of the product and salvaged its reputation.
Nearly 17 million Firestone tires were recalled in 2000,after reports of accidents and deaths. Following reports that the company knew of the problem long before issuing a recall,the company's reputation and sales declined.
And in 1993,four people died from E. coli bacteria found in Jack in the Box hamburgers. The company quietly handled the cases with out-of-court settlements and improved employee training.
When faced with a crisis,Bishoff said companies must communicate openly with customers.
“Honesty and integrity are the most critical ingredients needed to demonstrate concern on behalf of the company,” Bishoff said.
Noel Griese,author of “How to Manage Organizational Communication during Crisis,” said that companies must do all they can to keep an open dialogue with consumers.
“If public opinion is being affected by the crisis,then,yes,something should be done to address the issue,” said Griese,a retired professor and public relations executive. “Taking the ostrich approach and burying your head is not likely to be a benefit.”
Despite bad press and late night talk show humor,Lynch said the company stuck to its core values.
He said there is no blueprint for handling company crises,but there are certain things that all companies,big or small,should do to regain consumer support.
“Every crisis situation has its own makeup,and you cannot create a guidebook for dealing with crisis,but you can create an approach,” Lynch said.
Wendy's approach,Lynch said,had two components: “Tell the truth as you know it” and “Do the right thing.”
A Boston area McDonald's faced a similar crisis in June 2004,when woman found a 2-inch frog in her chicken Caesar salad. Bishoff,who has worked in crisis communication for 20 years,advised store owner Mark McBee,as did McDonald's corporate officials. He took a restrained approach.
Bishoff said McBee did not “feel the need to do anything special,” such as offering free items or discounts. Instead she said McBee “made himself available in the store for seven straight days” following the frog discovery to answer customers' questions.
For large,wealthy corporations,public relations campaigns are easier than they are for small-town businesses,like Kohl's Frozen Custard and Jumbo Burgers in Wilmington,N.C.
The store has struggled since a customer found a fingertip in his frozen custard May 1. Owner Craig Thomas said the incident has affected his first-year business,and he is working hard to repair its reputation.
He said an employee accidentally cut off a fingertip while operating the custard machine and a customer found it in a pint of frozen chocolate custard. The customer has threatened legal action. Thomas said the machine has been inspected and declared safe for use.
Thomas said he took note of Wendy's promotion to regain customers,but he hasn't decided if he needs to do something similar. Despite phone calls and e-mails of support from many community members,Thomas said his company is losing a so-far undetermined amount of money.
“We understand the psychological stigma attached to an incident such as this one,” Thomas said,“We just get the truth out there and correct misinformation.”