This post is part one of a two-part blog series examining communication strategy through the lens of Chipotle's recent food safety crisis.
If you’re a Chipotle regular, you needed a back-up plan for lunch this week as all Chipotle stores were closed half a day on Monday, Feb. 8.
By now, the food contamination crisis that has consumed the Denver-based burrito chain since July has been well-documented, building a case study for how a brand should (or should not, depending on your point of view), conduct itself during troubled times. The company continues to face the fallout from the food safety issues that have caused nearly 500 customers to become ill.
This week, company executives at Chipotle took the unusual step of closing all its restaurants between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. so that company leaders could communicate to 60,000 employees via satellite feed about the new food safety changes that are being implemented and to answer employee questions.
Chipotle has drawn some criticism for the Feb. 8 meeting – after all, shouldn’t safe food handling practices be routine, even expected, from a restaurant chain? Why do they need to hold a special meeting to discuss it?
In times of crisis, brands are often too focused on communicating with customers, the media and investors or shareholders to remember that their employees are key stakeholders as well. Employees are brand ambassadors. In local communities, those employees are the face of the company, so taking the time to clearly communicate with them is absolutely worth the time and effort.
So, brands need to think about that communication and then ACT:
- Acknowledge what has happened to date and be transparent. The Chipotle crisis is a complicated situation involving a CDC investigation and pending legal action by customers fell ill. This step is an opportunity for employees to hear the whole story directly from the people who are in charge.
- Change what’s wrong and tell employees what to expect. As a result of this crisis, Chipotle is instituting a more aggressive food safety plan that will change how ingredients are prepped and delivered to restaurants. Employees need to know how this will affect the company as well as their day-to-day jobs.
- Tell them how to talk about the crisis. This is key. Whether they’re career employees or high school students working part time, employees need guidance on how to engage not only with customers, but with people in the community and their families and friends. Make these messages simple and concise. This particularly applies to social media, where employees need to have a crystal clear understanding of Chipotle’s policy on when employees should and should NOT engage on behalf of the company.
It remains to be seen whether this week’s meeting is a good move or a misstep. But, being transparent with employees, especially during bad times, is never a bad thing.
At Mitchell we provide facilitation and training resources to support our broader offering of capabilities. The Center is staffed with a team of proven leaders and business-performance strategists. We provide customized training, facilitation and executive coaching to some of the world's largest companies and best-known brands. Ultimately, The Center helps develop relationships, elevate reputations and deliver results – which are the principles of being business counselors with communications expertise.