Taco Bell went on the offensive Tuesday as the company tried to diffuse
a social media frenzy ignited by a viral Internet photo that captures an
employee licking a stack of Cool Ranch tacos.
The photo, which emerged Sunday on the Internet, shows a young worker balancing some 30 shells and taking a tongue swipe across several of them. Throngs of people on Twitter and Facebook immediately began sharing the image, putting the Irvine-based chain's food safety standards into question.
Taco Bell, coming off one of its best financial years, told its 10 million Facebook followers that it had "zero tolerance" for this type of behavior.
"We believe this is a prank and the food was not served to customers. We are conducting an investigation and will be taking swift action against those involved," the company said when it first learned about the picture.
New details emerged Tuesday as Taco Bell made good on its promise to launch a probe.
The photo was taken in early March at a Ridgecrest Taco Bell restaurant as part of a company photo contest. Employees were asked to capture their first bite of a Cool Ranch taco, the second flavor to launch in the chain's successful Doritos Locos Tacos line. The taco debuted March 7.
"Two employees, however, used them [the tacos] to take a photo for an internal contest in which company and franchise employees could submit for approval photos of themselves enjoying their first bite of the product. The contest had clear guidelines about what was acceptable and unacceptable. This image was clearly unacceptable -- it violated the rules and spirit of the contest, and the employees never submitted it," Taco Bell stated on its website.
An employee posted the photo on Facebook, in violation of company policy. From there, it went viral, Taco Bell said."We do not believe these employees harmed, or intended to harm, anyone. But we deplore the impressions this has caused to our customers, fans, franchisees, and team members. The behavior is unacceptable for people working in a restaurant," the company said.
Taco Bell said the shells, used for training purposes only, were "absolutely not" sold to customers.
"The taco shells were sent to restaurants for training purposes before the new product launch, so team members could use them to practice making the new product before it became available to the public. These shells were a part of that training, were never intended to be served to customers, and were discarded. This is standard operating procedure, and our franchisee confirmed this protocol."
The employee in the photo is in the process of being terminated, Taco Bell said. The employee who took the photo no longer works at the restaurant.
"As we complete our investigation we will work with our franchisee to implement any additional action we find appropriate to address this situation and ensure it never happens again," Taco Bell said.
Ira Kalb, a USC marketing professor and branding expert who has written about Taco Bell's public relations strategies, said the photo's rapid spread could be particularly problematic for the company because the chain's customers are likely to be heavy users of social media.
"It could hurt them pretty badly," he said. "There's no way you can turn that image off in your brain."
Kalb said Taco Bell and other companies facing such problems should try to address the controversies head-on and turn a potentially negative situation into a positive. For instance, Taco Bell could use the opportunity to highlight its food safety guidelines and inspection procedures, Kalb said.
In 2011, a California woman filed a lawsuit accusing the company of not selling "real beef" in its tacos -- a case that was widely discussed on social media. Taco Bell fought the allegations with a $3 million advertising blitz, defending its beef products. The woman eventually dropped the lawsuit.
Taco Bell isn't the only chain to face such controversies, though. Earlier this year, a photo of a KFC employee appearing to lick mashed potatoes went viral.
"This is happening to a lot of companies and they all have to figure out how to contain it," Kalb said. "If they handle it properly, people will forget."
Mark McClennan, a director for the Public Relations Society of America, said social media controversies can disappear just as quickly as the appear, but companies need to take them seriously.
"The majority of the consumer brands have a number of people dedicated almost exclusively to this. Almost every PR professional has that as some part of their daily job," he said. "I don't think you can overestimate its importance."
Taco Bell has come under pressure to change how customers think of its brand.
In 2012, Taco Bell -- known for serving unconventional Mexican-inspired foods like chalupas -- flipped its marketing strategy. Instead of being a "food as fuel" chain, marketing executives said they want to be known as a "food experience" restaurant.
To do that, the chain expanded its food offerings last year with the introduction of the upscale fresh-Mex Cantina Bell menu and Doritos Locos Tacos. The approach seemed to work. As of early May, Taco Bell had sold 500 million Doritos-flavored tacos. The line is the most successful product launch in Taco Bell's 51-year history.
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