If Your Company is in Hot PR Water, Act Faster than Chipotle

Posted by Sarah Clark on February 17, 2016


This post is part two of a two-part blog series examining communication strategy through the lens of Chipotle's recent food safety crisis. Click here for part one.

In the past, Chipotle Mexican Grill has been a shining example of brand authenticity. Founded in 1993 (and having released a mission statement called “Food With Integrity”), Chipotle committed to providing quality and ethically sourced foods, and it amassed a cult-like following.

However, the recent E. coli outbreaks have shown that no company is immune to a public relations crisis or shifts in customer loyalty. As we often remind our clients, in a single day, you can go from being a darling of the media to being in the middle of a crisis.

The initial outbreak of E. coli emerged in October 2015. In the course of a few months, Chipotle struggled through restaurant closings, bad press, and declining sales. For those of us in the public relations discipline, we felt the company’s immense pain. As days passed, I kept hoping to see a response.

Getting in Front of the Problem

When your customers’ health is in jeopardy, you can never be too proactive. While not wanting to come across as “piling on” to a bad situation for a good brand, I think brands should remember certain things because of this.

The minute the news of E. coli broke, Chipotle could have ripped the Band-Aid off and quickly and publicly dealt with the situation.

Instead, the chain remained silent as it assessed the situation, breeding confusion. Customers wondered if their neighborhood locations were safe, if the bacteria would continue to spread, and if they could ever trust their favorite burrito joint again. Chipotle didn’t announce an apology and resolution plan until later in November. This pledge for safer food was far too late.

Many public relations experts and media outlets criticized Chipotle’s sluggishness in making disclosures to the public. It seemed Chipotle was not taking the problem seriously and was putting more people at risk than necessary. When sales began to decline, Chipotle came across as dodging responsibility by blaming the media for exacerbating the situation.

Preserving Customer Loyalty in the Face of a Crisis

Chipotle ultimately rolled out an authentic and brand-aligned response, but it could have taken a different approach. The following steps can prevent crises from escalating:

  1. Put your customers first.Chipotle’s reputation (and sales) took a hit amid questions about cleanliness and quality. Its standards should’ve been beyond reproach. Any company offering food or health products should always be prepared to shut down to ensure any concern is addressed immediately. Put customers first; they’ve entrusted you with their health and well-being.

  2. Make the first move.Chipotle missed the mark here. Instead of controlling the message and addressing concerns, it remained silent as the media and customers created their own theories and perceptions on what was happening in the kitchen. If a concern arises, you should make the first move, even if all you can say is “We are investigating the problem; stay tuned for updates.”

  3. Accept responsibility, but point to the truth.This is one area where Chipotle nailed it. The chain’s response in November clearly explained every effort made to investigate the problem and admitted it could not identify the outbreak’s exact cause. It’s not ideal to leave questions unanswered, but Chipotle took responsibility for causing customers pain while explaining the problem truthfully.

  4. Encourage constructive conversations.When you are making the first move, pay special attention to your loyal customers. They want to love and forgive you, and if given honest communication, they will rise up to fight on your behalf. Twitter is a great place to turn loyal customers into ambassadors, so consider starting there.

Federal investigators ended their Chipotle case in early February, and it looks like the worst days of the E. coli crisis are past. We all can take these events as a lesson learned in how important it is to put customers first (and how quickly customer loyalty can turn on a brand).

How do you think Chipotle could have better managed the E. coli crisis? Tell us in the comments.

Sarah Clark
 is the president of Mitchellan award-winning public relations firm that creates real conversations between people, businesses, and brands through strategic insights, customized conversations, and consumer engagement. The agency is headquartered in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with offices in Chicago and New York City. Mitchell is part of the Dentsu Aegis Network and has more than 300 offices in 145 countries. Clark is one of the top strategic communications professionals in the country, with more than 25 years of experience in corporate communications and an exceptional track record in protecting corporate reputations and redefining perceptions in key areas of business.

Topics: brand reputation, Communication Strategy