KFC answers the question: when are you allowed to be funny in a crisis?

KFC ran out of chicken in the UK. They had to close their restaurants, and then explain themselves. They decided to poke fun at themselves . . . which is great, so long as nobody gets hurt.

KFC suffered a distribution problem, which meant, basically, no chicken. Their first decision — to close the restaurants — made a lot more sense than staying open and serving everything that isn’t chicken. (After all, it’s not named after Kentucky Fried french fries.) But as the restaurant chain’s management tried to solve the problem, they also needed to communicate what they were doing.

First, there was a tweet featuring this message:

The rest of the communications strategy took the same tack: honesty mixed with a little self-deprecating humor, starting with another tweet about a page on their Web site with updates:

And next, a full-page ad in the papers bordering on profanity:

But it’s not all fun and games. KFC answered some tough questions and put a map on their site of the stores that were open.

When is a company allowed to be funny about a crisis?

Humor is a great way to disarm bad feelings in a crisis. But here’s a simple rule:

You can’t use humor in an apology if your screwup has victims.

So no funny apologies for sexual harassment, data breaches, or plane crashes. KFC’s “victims” were its customers who couldn’t get chicken — and they were likely to be slightly peeved, not steaming mad. Most apologies aren’t like that.

In a nutshell, what matters is what’s at stake for the customers and employees, not for you. For KFC in the UK, this is an existential crisis. But for the customers, not being able to get KFC is an inconvenience — and one that allows for humor. A chicken restaurant that can’t get chicken is already funny. You may as well make light of it.

I looked back at the apologies I’ve analyzed here. None of them could get solved with humor. Which is why you never saw statements like this:

You can’t use humor unless you first admit you were completely wrong. Most companies won’t do that. KFC did.

But even so, if you’ve hurt somebody, you can’t get away with it.

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  1. Supply chain management…never a dull moment. Kudos to them for their humor AND for paying employees both hourly and salaries while their restaurants are closed.

  2. Now that IS funny. Better than the usual legally safe, corporate bafflegab that you usually hear. Good on ’em.