Finger Food

May 4, 2005

Dave Poor Wendy’s. One crazy woman wrongly accuses the fast-food chain of an unthinkable crime (serving Chili containing a severed finger) and boom the brand has been dealt a major PR and marketing blow.

It is the nature of our world today that information travels faster than the speed of light, even if that information is false. And before you get the chance to set the record straight the brand damage has been done and Leno and Letterman have skewered your reputation.

How can you prevent this from happening? Well the truth is you cannot prevent crazy people from saying crazy things. And you certainly cannot stop the media, the comics or the bloggers from talking about it and propagating it. But like Valtrex and herpes, there are ways of making the outbreaks less severe.

The worst thing about the Wendy’s situation is that if one thing been different I think the whole mess could have been handled quickly and effectively.

What is that one thing? If Dave Thomas were still alive.

Dave Thomas was one of the best CEOs, PR spokespersons and advertising pitch people all rolled up into one. He was honest, sincere, straightforward, likeable, smart and well spoken.

Had Dave been around, I imagine he would have hit the TV talk shows immediately and inoculated the brand against the PR destruction that one woman attempted to cause.

The public finds it easy to hate big corporate giants. Photos of severed fingers can quickly fuel anger and dampen chili sales. But the public believes in people. And Dave is the type of guy people like to cheer for. I think Dave could have quickly convinced the public that he would personally get to the bottom of the problem. And help ease the panic and fears caused by the story.

But instead of hearing from Dave, we saw Wendy’s conducting an employee finger check at the restaurant where the chili was sold. Overall the team at Wendy’s did a mostly acceptable job of handling the disaster. Unfortunately what they really needed most was Dave and unfortunately he is no longer around.

Wendy’s has been unable to replace the irreplaceable Dave Thomas. While it is risky to place too much of the brand in one persons hands it is also dangerous not having a well known personality to represent the brand especially when trouble occurs.

Without a high profile leader, brands can end up like big ships in the water with no captain at the wheel being thrown off course by rogue waves.

In the wake of this PR disaster, I believe Dave Thomas would have been able to set the Wendy’s ship right back on course with his charming smile and reassuring words. Something that even the best written press release could never do.