I’ve written before about the strange turns class-action strategy can take when public relations becomes a factor. But a PR campaign can also be a very effective defensive tool under certain circumstances. How effective? Just ask the folks at Taco Bell.
To recap the Taco Bell class action story: the plaintiffs, represented by class-action firms Blood Hurst & O’Reardon LLP and Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis & Miles PC, sued Taco Bell claiming that the fast food giant didn’t use real beef in its meals. Most class-action defendants, when faced with a high-profile case like this, tend to keep mum. Their usual calculation (as many lawyers would tell you) is that it’s better to take a few lumps in the press than to say something that might create a liability issue later down the line . Taco Bell, however, took the opposite tack. It embarked on an proactive PR campaign, taking out full-page ads that said "Thank You For Suing Us," and explaining exactly how much beef was in its meals.
The campaign certainly worked from a public-relations standpoint. The story quickly shifted from "Taco Bell Acccused of Inferior Product" to "Taco Bell Takes on Trial Lawyers." That did two things at once: it effectively neutered one source of leverage for plaintiffs, since it became clear that Taco Bell would not settle to avoid the possibility of adverse publicity. But, at the same time, the PR campaign told its customer base (which is made up largely of college students) that Taco Bell was going to stand by its product, and that it was willing to do so in an irreverent, pugnacious fashion. After all, if the Volcano Burrito doesn’t give Taco Bell customers heartburn, why would counterpunching in a PR battle bother them?
What’s more interesting is that the tactic also worked as a litigation defense. The plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their suit. While they haven’t explained why, it’s safe to bet that their inability to pressure Taco Bell into settling (coupled with the possibility that they had not met their Rule 11 burden of conducting an adequate factual investigation) played a role.
There is a question as to whether the company’s final push for an apology is an effective tactic. Taco Bell is unlikely to get either plaintiffs’ firm to say they’e sorry. On the other hand, twisting the knife a little may be just what its target demographic finds appealing.
While Taco Bell’s campaign validates using aggressive PR under certain circumstances, it’s important to recognize that Taco Bell had some distinct natural advantages here: a clear case on the facts, a target audience that was likely to react well, and a court that had no reason to be annoyed with its advertising. But Taco Bell’s success is a great reminder that sometimes, when the conditions are right, the best defense is a good offense.