I know, it’s a most cringe worthy title, but I could not resist.
This past week the social networks were abuzz with news of the latest fast food restaurant to suffer an employee created PR ‘crises.’
Social media, Facebook in particular, is visually impactful; the image of an employee apparently licking an entire stack of hard shell tacos inside of the restaurant immediately was too irresistible, too share-able.
It was everywhere.
We have been through this before, with Burger King, Dominoes, and even Taco Bell a couple of times. In 2011 the company responded to an attack and lawsuit accusing them of not using real beef by countering on social media.
This ‘crisis’ was more typical of the kind faced by fast food restaurants:
An employee decides that it would be funny or vengeful, or whatever the inexplicable reasoning they use to post an image that horrifies their patrons. The web lights up with the image, and social marketers sit waiting to pounce on the first misstep by the attacked restaurant chain.
Too often the reaction of the victimized company is one of the following:
Silence: we’ve all witnessed the shutting down of comments and a total radio silence.
Delayed Reaction: My partner Danny Brown will tell you that no company should be expected to respond within minutes. I may disagree with him on the speediness required, but I do think that we, the social mob, have unrealistic expectations of the response time required.
A non apology, apology. No need for explanation, but it’s the ‘we’re sorry if you’re offended’ sort of response that we have all shaken our heads at countless times.
Very often, the person who is to blame, the dolt who created the imagery, is forgotten about and the company becomes the bad guy.
Was the Taco Licking a Crime or a Prank?
My normally mediocre patience was even shorter than usual, and when I read this story I wanted to personally bend the perpetrator ‘kid’ over my knee.
I was totally fed up with these stories of fast food restaurant employees endangering the health of unknowing customers AND harming the reputation of their employer, and I took my little rant to Facebook.
My friends didn’t all agree with my statement that the ‘kid’ should be held responsible and receive a greater punishment than just losing his job. Here’s the mix of reactions I got:
Two of my respected, social savvy friends suggested that I lighten up, that this was just a ‘prank,’ and that we’d all done silly things when we were young.
Another friend suggested that this continued to happen at fast food restaurants because the employees were all underpaid and disgruntled.
One reasoned that this probably came from the ‘top down,’ as in from the management of that one particular restaurant, so the employee wasn’t fully to blame.
Lastly, and most wisely, I was cautioned that, at the time of my rant, we did not have all of the facts. We didn’t know what had actually taken place – perhaps those shells were being thrown out and the employee and his photographer were just having a little fun.
Here’s my take:
Yes, we all did silly things when we were young and immature, I get that. However, I think that we all understood, or SHOULD understand, that there are consequences to our actions. If we get caught doing something stupid, we should expect a punishment. The real question is: what is that punishment?
If you don’t like your pay, you don’t have the right to take it out on innocent customer and your fellow employees, because if the company WAS impacted by your idiocy, do you think the upper management would be the ones losing their jobs?
I think that attitude and disrespect usually trickle down, so it is likely that management at this particular restaurant needs a tune up. I don’t know the circumstances of this specific employee and his manager, but anyone who has worked in the restaurant business knows that they’re not all created equally. Those who value respect and take pride in their business and in serving their customers usually have employees who embrace their values. I think we’d all be beyond shocked if this happened at Starbucks for that very reason.
I can’t disagree with the need for fact finding; it was true that at the time of the licking going viral, and my ensuing rant, we had no idea about who/when/if the incident actually occurred. More patience and a holding of the tongue was indeed appropriate.
What Should the Punishment Be?
So this employee has lost his job – is that enough? Not in my ‘fed up to here with the idiocy’ opinion.
I do not think that jail time is in order, but I am still a big believer in the type of public shaming that comes with community service punishments. If this kid was not embarrassed by the image that was posted online already, do we really think it will break him to wear a bright orange jumpsuit and clean up trash along the road way?
The ‘prankster,’ potentially risked the health of customers, and he risked the reputation of a business. Why should there be no punishment for that?
There has to be a better deterrent than losing a job you obviously don’t value. Right now the only consequence appears to be a firing and fleeting viral fame. Not good enough, in my opinion. I’m sure some of you will disagree.
How did Taco Bell react?
On June 3rd, Taco Bell posted the following statement on their website, on a page you had to actively look for under “Company,” not on the home page.
Later, they updated it.
They also responded to a Huffington Post request for a comment, with Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch had this to say via email:
Taco Bell has…… strict food handling procedures and zero tolerance for any violations.”
“When we learned of the situation we immediately contacted this restaurant’s leadership and although we believe it is a prank and the food was not served to customers, we are conducting a full scale investigation and will be taking swift action against those involved.”
What Did the Social Experts Think Taco Bell Should Have Done?
Like Taco Bell, we’re all getting a little more experienced at these employee-created food crises, so I think the collective reaction was relatively measured. There was a lot of blogging about the incident, but not too much condemnation for the victim, Taco Bell.
Melissa Agnes, who specializes in Social PR Crises, certainly didn’t think Taco Bell did a good job, and she used her blog to scold the company sternly.
I do think Melissa makes some good points, and her tools to measure what is a social crisis are valid. Here are her questions to determine if an issue is a crisis; she answers for Taco Bell.
Does the situation risk having a negative impact on their reputation? Yes.
Does the situation risk having a negative impact on their bottom line? Yes (especially if they don’t respond and react accordingly)
Does the situation risk having a strong negative emotional impact on stakeholders? Yes.
Does the situation have a high-risk potential of going viral? Yes, especially since it already has!
In her post, Agnes takes them to task on their handling in general; I don’t necessarily agree with her.
Agnes is right, it was great that Taco Bell swiftly put out a statement, but burying it on an unseen website page instead of blasting it all over Social Media may have been a mistake.
If indeed they did shut down comments on their Facebook Page (honestly, I wasn’t sitting watching their every move as the crises came to life), that is something I would never recommend. Nor would I recommend they answer every single troll who attacks them on any of their networks.
In the Agnes post, the author states that Taco Bell closed off their Facebook Page, and as I said, I wasn’t there for the play by play.
However, I did spend the better part of an hour scrolling back through all of the posts by others on the Taco Bell Facebook page last week; there were MANY posts containing the picture, and Taco Bell answered every single one of them and shared a link to their statement.
On their current Facebook Page Taco Bell appears to engage regularly with their commenters.
Their followers seem to be passionate about Taco Bell, and many of them have a wry sense of humor. When there is a complaint about customer service Taco Bell asks for more details and provides both a link AND a phone number for the customer to speak in more detail to the customer.
I give them a high score for that.
Another thing to note, Taco Bell did NOT stop people from continually posting the lick shot. It appears over and over again, usually with fairly polite questions, and each time Taco Bell answered.
Their twitter feed right now is devoid of conversation about ‘The Picture,’ and as I’ve stated a couple of times , I was not monitoring the situation real time.
There were lots of social bloggers out there full of advice for Taco Bell. The best suggestion I came across came from the comment section on Branding Magazine’s short post.
Neal Hopkins had this to say:
Personally, I think that Taco Bell should not make a Big Noise, but make the right noises. Use this as an opportunity to subtly reaffirm whatever commitments to training/hygiene they have, fire the employee quietly or retrain him then use him as an ambassador of sorts.
A statement of apology isn’t enough. Anyone can write words. What is more socially meaningful is the right action communicated well and with humility.
How Does It End for Taco Bell?
Now that some time has passed this ‘taco licking incident’ appears as just another blip on the social media scene.
During the same week a post about a man on a train supposedly bragging about his extramarital affairs and outed by a passenger was hogging up the indignant outrage. I won’t share that link because again, no one knew the facts as it gained on 100,000 Facebook shares last Friday.
But the point is: we’ll all forget about the Taco Licker in a few weeks.
Taco Bell’s measured silence was probably the right one.
Although he is criticized for his brash demeanor, American Apparel CEO Don Charney was probably right when he decided that responding to social criticism may not always be the right move. His handling of the criticism he received over the #Sandy hashtag to promote a sale when the northeast was being slammed with a massive storm was met with an enormous online backlash, but that didn’t translate to lost sales.
We covered the fact that American Apparel sales went up during the outrage in a post a few weeks ago.
Although more silently, Taco Bell appears to be taking the same approach, and I think it’s smart. Yes, I would have made the official post easier to find on their website, but their patient and repeated handling of questioning on their Facebook Page gets them an A in my book.
Like American Apparel, Taco Bell appears to have a passionate and loyal following. Tomorrow we’ll start the new week, and you can bet that our memory of the Taco Bell Licker will recede, and within a matter of weeks or even days, we’ll be on about some other immature ‘prankster’ pulling a similar trick.
And yes, we’ll be following up on the impact this ‘crisis’ has on Taco Bell down the road.
Makes you think we may need to invent a new word for these dust ups, because the word crisis may be a bit too strong to be used on a weekly basis.
VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.