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Lessons from Wendy’s: Getting Burned By Bad Messaging

March 1, 2024

Everyone fails at communicating once in a while, and corporate CEOs are no exception. But bad messaging can quickly turn into a PR fiasco when an idea is shared casually, without proper vetting and with the possibility of being misconstrued. A restaurant chain’s half-baked idea can easily turn the company into a media laughingstock and a target of consumer outrage.

So it was when Wendy’s CEO Kirk Tanner mentioned to investors on a recent call that the company was looking at “dynamic pricing and daypart offerings along with AI-enabled menu changes” in the near future. Whether or not the actual plans were misconstrued, it seemed tone deaf at a time when people are already struggling with the impact of inflation. Sure enough, the company was forced to reassure customers  that their hamburger won’t leap in price while they are waiting in the checkout line when the store is busiest.

Fast food isn’t our bailiwick, but we know a thing or two about navigating a crisis stemming from a poorly formed statement, from within a company or by influential outsiders.

Here’s a quick guide:

Don’t amplify the message: Never repeat what you’re trying to overcome in your own communications. Focus on the positive message, such as “Our customers know our commitment to quality and excellence.” If needed, refer generally to “certain missteps.”

Think about your audiences: What may be great news to an investor could be bad news for consumers. Always think about how your message could be received by your key audiences and adapt accordingly. In the case of Wendy’s, instead of simply mentioning surge pricing, they should have highlighted potential benefits for customers, such as real-time discounts and time-based incentives.

Show that you’re listening: Acknowledge that you have heard what investors, employees and the general public are saying, without taking excessive issue with it.

Stay calm: Ensure that you always know what to say in advance of any interviews, keep smiling and be confident to avoid the “deer in the headlights” effect, which leads to disaster.

Never blame the media: Regardless of how opinionated or even wrong some reports may have been, don’t be defensive and pick fights with networks, newspapers or reporters. Take responsibility, stress your own message and don’t publicly complain that your statements are being “misconstrued.” 

Sadly, life doesn’t have a rewind button. But having a firm strategy in place for crisis management and backlashes can help you avoid getting broiled by a bad idea.

By Adam Dickter, Vice President