Hundreds of KFC outlets remained shut in Britain on February 21 because of a supply crisis, leaving fans craving a fix of deep-fried chicken. The shortages prompted online mockery and disbelief aimed at the US fast-food giant. Photo: AFP
The View
by Stephen Vines
The View
by Stephen Vines

Everybody makes mistakes, but a deft touch can make it quickly go away. KFC is a case in point

When KFC ran out of chicken at more than two thirds of its outlets in the UK recently, it quickly acknowledged its failure and applied a light touch to diffuse the situation

What happens to a fast-food chain that specialises in chicken but has no chicken to sell? This sounds like a version of the “why did the chicken cross the road” joke but for KFC’s UK subsidiary it’s far from being a joke because distribution problems forced two thirds of its outlets to temporarily close as chicken supplies dried up.

The problem was that KFC’s new distribution agent, DHL, somehow managed to cock things up, or as the company previously known as Kentucky Fried Chicken ruefully explained in a tweet: “We’ve got the chicken, we’ve got the restaurants, but we just had issues getting them together.”

KFC went further and in a mock Q&A answered its own question of how it ran out of chicken by saying “you had one job at KFC … fix it now”.

The problem was eventually fixed but not before adding greatly to the sum of human gaiety. What was so impressive about KFC’s response to this crisis was that not only did it participate in the gaiety but at no point tried to play down the problem or even shift the blame.

The way KFC handled things might become part of the textbook on crisis management adding to the well-established principle of quickly acknowledging failure by stipulating that it should be done with a deft light touch.

Compare this with how the mighty Apple Corporation responded to complaints about its new iPhone X model, which, according to many of its users, suffers the embarrassing problem of not being able to cope with the simple function of handling incoming calls. Apparently there is a bug that causes a delay for reception of these calls, which in turn causes great aggravation to users.

So, how did Apple respond as the complaints flowed in? Of course there was no apology but there was a vague promise to “look into this”, followed by the type of hubristic response which is the speciality of some massive corporations. Instead of dealing with the complaint CEO Tim Cook proclaimed that customer satisfaction for the X model was “off the charts”.

Apple, instead of acknowledging problems with the iPhone X, has vaguely promised to look into the issue. Photo: AP Photo

It’s a fair bet that KFC will recover from its embarrassing glitch and that customers will remember the light touch it showed in dealing with its problems. It’s an equally fair bet that Apple’s arrogant response will also be noted and provides ammunition for the growing band of ABAs or Anything-But-Apple consumers.

On a far smaller scale you can see how something like this has panned out in Hong Kong. When it was discovered that Huen Wong, chairman of the Communications Authority, had breached the rules by holding shares in a company regulated by the authority, he promptly resigned. Wong said he did so to preserve the credibility of the authority. It appears that this is exactly what was achieved and the controversy that bubbled for a couple of days quickly subsided leaving the regulator with no real residual problems.

Huen Wong, chairman of the Communications Authority, was quick to hand in his resignation for breaching the rules by holding shares in a company regulated by the authority. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Compare and contrast this with the unending saga of the Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah’s illegal structure problems and the absence of a prompt and graceful response. The result is there for all to see. Not only has Cheng clung onto to her job but she has done so with the fulsome backing of her boss, the Chief Executive, thus bringing the whole administration into dubious territory. Even if, like the mighty Apple, officials try to bluff this one out, the problem will continue to fester and cause further damage.

People are not stupid; they understand that even the biggest companies and the most powerful individuals make mistakes. Indeed in some instances they like to see the mighty prove their fallibility however what sensible people do not like is arrogance and they understand that a price has to be paid by those who will not shoulder responsibility for mistakes.

United’s handling of the crisis in the aftermath of a passenger being dragged off one of its planes left a lot to be desired. Photo: AP Photo

The business world has long experience of how this works but it is surprising how frequently lessons are not learned. Apple may think it is pretty damn clever to shrug off the fallout from selling a phone that has problems receiving phone calls but the company’s hubris comes with a price that has yet to be paid.

Another smartphone maker, Samsung, had a more serious problem with exploding batteries but it took decisive action and bounced back with alacrity brandishing an improved phone.

At the other end of the spectrum is United Airlines. Who does not remember images of a passenger being dragged off a plane so that a staff member could be seated? And who can forget how this incident was compounded by the disastrous way that United handled its aftermath. The residual consequences are that when passengers have a choice many have decided that United is the airline to avoid.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The crisis-control recipe