What Brands Can Learn From Taco Bell’s Social Media Lawsuit Defense

Patrick Kerley is the senior digital strategist at Levick Strategic Communications. He is also a contributing author to Bulletproof Blog™ and can be found on Twitter @pjkerley.

When it comes to high profile lawsuits, it’s often been the plaintiff’s use of social media that makes headlines and wins those ever-important battles in the Court of Public Opinion. Blogs raise awareness of issues that could lead to lucrative litigation, and smart SEO and SEM campaigns can dominate the online conversation. Social media is used recruit potential class action clients. All the while, the target of the litigation — the defender — often stands mute, from a digital perspective. Commonly, the defender will cede control of the Internet’s messaging high ground to adversaries.

But the “no comment” strategy has increasingly been cast aside in an age when instant impressions can cause lasting reputation damage. More and more companies are realizing the benefits of mounting a digital defense when plaintiffs come knocking. As evidenced by the recent lawsuit against Taco Bell — alleging that its “seasoned beef” doesn’t meet USDA requirements for that label — defense messages are starting to compete for attention in the online space. Over the last several weeks, Taco Bell has written a template for digital litigation communications that — while certainly more aggressive than many lawsuits call for — has highlighted a number of best practices that every company playing social media defense should consider.

Use Your Peacetime Wisely

Prior to the lawsuit, Taco Bell already maintained a Facebook Page with nearly 5.7 million fans, a Twitter profile with nearly 80,000 followers, and YouTube channel with videos that have been viewed nearly three million times. Not only did this help to amass an audience that would be receptive to its messages when they mattered most; it also ensured that — as of this morning — only one of the returns on the first page of results for a “Taco Bell” Google search was related to the lawsuit. By building a base of brand advocates and “flooding the zone” with positive content before trouble arose, the company essentially made it more difficult for negative news to break through the clutter.

Establishing such a strong web presence after a lawsuit has come to a company’s attention simply isn’t possible. By using its peacetime wisely, Taco Bell ensured that it was prepared to defend any reputation assault in the venues that its consumers turn to most often for information.

Dominate Search Engines

Immediately after the lawsuit was announced, Taco Bell initiated an SEM campaign that brought web searchers to its side of the story first. These sponsored links have since been taken down as the controversy subsided — a move that limits the lawsuit’s notoriety and articulates the company’s sense that consumers are ready to move on. But among the top organic results for a “Taco Bell meat quality” search is still the “Food Facts” page on Taco Bell’s website, which outlines the company’s commitment to using only the highest quality ingredients and refutes the plaintiffs’ claims.

Clearly, Taco Bell appreciates the role of search engines as de facto gatekeepers of information. The company understood that the first story told is the story that is believed. As a result, the plaintiffs now have to swim against a rising tide of public opinion.

Enlist Your Fans, Followers and Friends

The time to build your brand is before the wars begin….

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