FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Wendy's vs. the "Monster Meme"

I'm no fast food maven, but on occasion, I've found Wendy's chili to be pretty good. But when Anna Ayala claimed to have found a severed finger in her bowl of Wendy's chili back in March, I must admit I lost my hankering for the stuff.

Now that the allegations have proven to be a hoax, where does Wendy's go from here? Already, the chain claims to have lost $2.5 million in business in northern California alone, where the alleged incident was reported, and has had to cut employees' hours and even resort to layoffs. And thanks to incessant reporting on 24-hour cable news -- not to mention all those jokes by the late-night talk-show hosts -- the damage could go even deeper.

The incident underscores just how damaging an allegation against a business can be in today's media environment. One can think of this as a "monster meme," a story that takes on a life of its own, growing out of control, with potentially disastrous results.

Like an innocent person wrongly convicted of a crime, Wendy's has its work cut out for it in rebuilding its reputation. As Johnson & Johnson did when it was faced with its Tylenol product tampering crisis in 1982, Wendy's will have to leverage every bit of creative thinking and pure PR muscle it can muster to win back customers. Fortunately for Wendy's, the Tylenol crisis provides a precedent for success.