After officials from the food safety department in Kerala raided a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlet in Thiruvananthapuram last week following complaints of worms in the chicken being served, Yum! Restaurants - which operates KFC India - mailed a short response to media houses.
Among other things, the note said: "We take all claims about our food very seriously and we are thoroughly investigating this claim," and urged consumers to "rest assured that as a responsible brand, we are committed to following international standards and serving the highest quality products to all our customers across each of our restaurants ."
Point to note: there was no reference to the allegation in the company release.
There was a Facebook update as well in which the Yum! Restaurants' chief food innovation officer, Vijay Sukumar, harped for some time on the safety measures operative at KFC kitchens, and then dug his teeth into a nicely browned piece of chicken leg picked up from an unmistakably-KFC bucket of fried chicken. Again, no reference to the allegation.
Frankly, this is the acid test for brand managers: how to manage communication when controversy strikes. It is interesting to see how different brands have chosen to deal with controversies in their own ways because there are important lessons to draw from them.
Remember the pesticide controversy from 2003? Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, the two companies in the eye of the storm, took out giant-sized print ads in national dailies and went on to organise a joint press conference to challenge the allegations made by the Centre for Science and Environment about finding pesticide residues in the two brand of soft drinks. On television the two, however, took very different approaches.
Coke had an ad in the "Thanda" series in the pipeline and the company went ahead and released it, first as a teaser and then as a full-blown campaign. But the ad made absolutely no reference to the controversy.
Pepsi, on the other hand, took the allegations head on. It ran a tactical commercial featuring star endorsers Shah Rukh Khan and Sachin Tendulkar to address the issue of "safety".
The campaign was interesting because it played on the issue in a fun way. So, there was Khan telling viewers that his Pepsi was never really "safe" since there were many greedy people around (like Tendulkar) who wanted to grab his drink. Although the whole idea gelled well with the tone of the brand - that Pepsi is brash and anti-establishment - it also helped reinforce the fact that the brand was still very much in demand.
The two brands, Coke and Pepsi, had completely different styles - one made no mention of the controversy and went about life as usual, the other actually drew from the controversy to communicate its core message of desirability.
And now, in the era of the all-pervasive social media, you can't really afford to look the other way. Domino's Pizza learnt that the hard way when, about five years back, two of its employees at a North Carolina franchise used YouTube to broadcast a rather disgusting video.
This particular video showed a Domino's employee, who was preparing sandwiches insert a piece of cheese up his nose, while a fellow employee provided a running commentary. The video went viral and the company suddenly found itself in major public relations crisis.
In response to the uproar, Domino's decided to unleash its own video on YouTube, where the whole affair had begun. In the company's official video clip, Domino's President Patrick Doyle first said the other video was a hoax and then put before consumers the many reasons they should continue to patronise the brand.
The company was also quick to realise the extent of damage the social media could do to its brand. So, it actively used the company's official Twitter account to reach out to customers.
In fact, it is the advent of the social media that has made crisis communication an ever-bigger challenge. But the basic question remains: which is a better idea - to explain or ignore? Brush things under the carpet and imagine people will forget or stick your neck out because you owe your customer an explanation?
Whatever be the controversy and the extent of damage, ignoring it isn't a particularly good idea, say experts, though how you fashion your response would also depend on the extent of negative publicity.
Public relations, usually, is a powerful tool in such situations since people in general tend to believe news more than paid advertising. So, if you have a strong argument going for you, it's better to go out and take the charges head-on because silence could easily be construed as an admission of guilt.