—George Fiddler, Client Relationship Manager, Fast Horse Inc.

Last Saturday night I watched the entire 2011 Taco Bell Skills Challenge, an NBA All-Star competition that puts some of the league’s best point guards through an obstacle course of shooting, passing and dribbling. I somehow turned the tube off thinking about trends in modern crisis communication strategy.

How did this happen? I noticed that a couple of the participants in the basketball drill seemed to have a game plan in place intended to preserve energy, whereas others just appeared content on figuring out their strategy as they went. This then made me think more deeply about the proactive approach that the Taco Bell marketing team took to a disparate recent challenge. Strange connection, I know, but I also happened to be eating a burrito at the time and you know how pervasive the branding is at these sponsored events – it was hard not to think about tacos.  

The aforementioned other Taco Bell–related challenge is the strategy that had to be developed after a Montgomery, Alabama–based law firm filed a class action lawsuit against the fast food chain last month. If you’re not familiar with the lawsuit, here are the lead sentences in its Nature of the Action section:

“This is a consumer rights class action challenging Taco Bell’s practice of representing to consumers that the filling in many of its “beef” food items is “seasoned ground beef” or “seasoned beef,” when in fact a substantial amount of the filling contains substances other than beef. Rather than beef, these food items are actually made with a substance known as “taco meat filling.””

I guess I didn’t notice it as much as it happened, but the approach that Taco Bell took was pretty bold. Rather than shying away from the claims or preparing a response strategy for if and when consumers come knocking, the company took the media–buying initiative and ran full-page ads proclaiming “Thank You For Suing Us."

It also made the lawsuit a focal point of its website with video responses from its CEO and links to the nutritional value of its products. Furthermore, it changed the copy in its paid–search advertising from "Taco Bell" to "Taco Bell Official Facts" about the beef lawsuit.

Surely Taco Bell’s legal folks were confident that the claims made against the brand weren’t legitimate. If the lawsuit was regarding an issue that wasn’t backed by USDA certification, then it’s doubtful the company would’ve brought the issue front and center like it did with its consumers, but it’s still fairly surprising that a major company would choose to bring more attention to a lawsuit, any lawsuit, regardless of how dubious the claims may be. Too many consumers will hear the words ‘lawsuit’ and ‘ingredients’ and make up their mind. It seems that the company realized there was potential for rampant consumer backlash and that it was best to put out the fire before much of one could get started. 

It’s been a month, but it seems like that decision was the right choice. The strategy exposed more people to the lawsuit, but the humor, confidence and transparency that the brand showed were consumer–friendly moves that might have saved an angry online outrage that can escalate in a drop of a dime (see: Kenneth Cole) from happening.

It’s interesting to imagine if this had happened with Taco Bell five years ago and if the brand would’ve taken the same approach before social media changed the communications landscape. Even if it’s out of the fear of consequence, the digital era might just be making brands become better listeners and more honest (see: Dominos). In part so I can finally get this pun out: what do you think the future holds for when someone has a beef with big businesses?