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Taco Wars

Taco Bell meets Alabama’s prime plaintiff law firm in the halls of justice and says thanks.

When allegations challenging the quality of an internationally recognized brand are thrust into the court of public opinion, where does self-righteous indignation leave off and a carefully crafted crisis communication plan take over?

Launching an all-out public relations assault is a good start, a local expert says, but carrying the campaign past the resolution of the issue, demanding a public apology and thanking the aggressor for raising the issue won high PR praise.

That’s precisely what transpired in January when Montgomery-based Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis and Miles PC filed a federal class-action lawsuit in the Central District of California, accusing Taco Bell of employing false advertising tactics to sell its products. The lawsuit did not ask for monetary damages, only a change in Taco Bell’s advertising claims.

The suit has since been dropped, with both sides claiming moral victories, but the consensus among industry experts who followed the case contend Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell definitely prevailed in terms of media exposure and message delivery.

Darlene Rotch, CEO of Birmingham-based Panorama Public Relations, says a simple Crisis Management 101 technique could have easily avoided what turned into a heated PR battle.

“Make sure you know the answer before you ask the question. Get your facts right. You may decide to head a different direction,” she says. “I think Taco Bell really came out on top on this one. Beasley Allen, not so much. They received name recognition, but probably not the kind they’d hoped for.”

Panorama—which has represented clients like Accenture, Chevron, Vulcan Materials, Publix Super Markets, Belk Department Stores, Southern Research Institute and NASA during its 13-year history—includes crisis management among its specialties. Crisis management, Rotch says, means stepping in on a moment’s notice to help clients “identify facts, work with media and manage (their) reputation,” freeing up the company to handle the “unfolding incident.”

At its core, Beasley Allen’s suit contended that tests revealed the meat mixture used by Taco Bell contained less than 35 percent beef, falling well below U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for labeling it beef. Along with the beef, the suit contended, were water, wheat oats, soy lecithin, maltodextrin, anti-dusting agent and modified corn starch. Taco Bell countered that its fillings were 88 percent beef.

Attorney Dee Miles declined to comment for this article, citing the settlement arrangement reached between the law firm and restaurant chain when the case was dropped. He has noted on the record throughout the proceedings, however, that the suit never sought monetary damages, only truth in advertising.

The law firm did, however, release the following formal statement: “At this time, the only thing we can offer is a firm response that the case was resolved and it would not be appropriate for us to comment further.”

Rotch says if Beasley Allen’s original intent was to satisfy the complaint of a single client, Amanda Obney, they would have contacted Taco Bell/Yum Foods with a legal complaint, but instead they chose to place the complaint in the media arena most likely to boost exposure and possibly get enough people “on the bandwagon to certify a class-action suit.”

Taco Bell officials have repeatedly taken issue with Beasley Allen’s choice to announce the lawsuit via a press conference without having first initiated contact with the chain.

“When the plaintiffs’ lawyers issued public statements and conducted media interviews, it quickly created national news, so we knew we had to respond swiftly,” says Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch. “We were mindful that bad news, even when false, could generate even more media coverage and confusion among our customers, and would stick more with consumers, than positive, true news. So we had to use every communications tool available to get the truth out as widely and quickly as possible.”

Although Beasley Allen voluntarily withdrew the suit, Poetsch says Taco Bell continues to monitor and respond to questions in social media, which played a significant role in the incident’s lifespan.

“Social media was a key element in reaching our consumers, because it’s instantaneous and reaches a captive audience. With a Facebook community of more than 6 million (at the time) passionate fans, we regularly communicated with them about the facts, and we received an overwhelmingly positive response,” he says, noting Facebook fans were rewarded with a free taco for their support.

The ultimate outcome is a little more difficult to quantify, Poetsch says.

“We felt it was important to tell our customers in our brand voice both that the lawyers gave up and that our advertising and product quality was not in question. Although we don’t believe we fully achieved our goal of getting the positive, truthful message out to all consumers who heard the original false claims, we tried,” he says.

Rotch says Taco Bell had “no choice” but to vehemently defend its products and brand.

“I think their strategy was spot on and may have changed negative perceptions some consumers could have had about the brand. In the long run, we may even see that Taco Bell’s defense of the brand and education of the consumer added value to the brand, hence the (full-page advertisements) from (parent company) Yum Foods—Thanks for suing us!” she says.

In hindsight, Rotch says Beasley Allen should have “given more thought” to issuing a press release claiming victory in forcing the chain’s hand in “changing its marketing” to address the issue.

Poetsch says the media complicates issues like this because bad news typically draws more attention than good.
“Bad news, even when false, draws a lot of attention, just as it did in this case. Good news, on the other hand, such as the fact the plaintiffs’ lawyers gave up and dismissed their claims, doesn’t generate nearly as much news coverage or consumer attention. This often leaves many customers having heard the bad news but not the good news,” he says.

Rotch contends, however, that the media simply did its job.

“The media’s role was to inform consumers of the potential issue with a popular food product. They were doing their job,” she says, adding, “I do think Taco Bell’s crisis plan worked. Just like we will all remember the CEO of BP telling us he ‘wanted his life back,’ we will remember the ‘thank you for suing us’ (ad campaign).”

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