What Chipotle can teach us about crisis communications

Food safety problems can be a recipe for disaster in the restaurant industry. Just ask Chipotle Mexican Grill.

In the span of two months beginning in October, the company has dealt with an outbreak of E. coli infections that sickened 52 people in nine states and forced the company to temporarily close some locations along with reports earlier this month that up to 140 people fell ill from norovirus linked to a Chipotle restaurant in Boston.

The situation was summed up best by US News & World Report: “For a company founded on fresh ingredients and locally sourced food, it was a nightmare that seemed to have no end.” Indeed. The company’s stock prices fell 24 percent. Then, in a conference call with investors, Chipotle co-CEO Monty Moran blamed the crisis on the media for over-reporting the illnesses.

But, 24 hours later, something remarkable happened. Chipotle Founder Steve Ells went on the TODAY show and delivered a textbook example of the right way to communicate during a crisis. It was a momentous first step toward changing the media narrative and restoring the company’s reputation.

How did he do it? By demonstrating concern and articulating the company’s extensive efforts to find and fix the problem.

First, he began the interview with an apology. It was honest, and it was heartfelt. “First, I have to say I’m sorry for the people that got sick. They’re having a tough time. I feel terrible about that, and we’re doing a lot to rectify this and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Second, he took control of the interview by concentrating on one key message and working to make it the focus of each question he answered. “The procedures we’re putting in place today are so above industry norms that we are going to be the safest place to eat.”

When questioned about the financial toll the crisis was taking on his company, Ells deftly pivoted back to the key message: “That’s not what we’re thinking about now. We’re thinking about the safety and quality of our ingredients to put in place practices that will not enable this to happen again.”

The day after Ells’ interview, Chipotle’s stock jumped 5 percent.

You can be certain this did not occur by chance. Somewhere out there is a talented team of PR professionals who worked hard to prepare Ells for this interview. Job well done, team. Job well done.

Carolyn Reis, APR, is a veteran public relations consultant nationally trained in crisis communications. Her firm, Orlando-based Reis Corporate Public Relations, focuses on serving the strategic marketing communications needs of business-to-business clients in Florida and national companies with a Florida presence. You can reach her at Carolyn@ReisCorporatePR.com or on Twitter @carolynreisapr.

One Comment

Nicole Candler, APR

I had a debate with a colleague recently about controlling the media vs. controlling the message. Thanks for giving me an example and more ammo. As more companies focus on fresh food options, I’m afraid Chipotle won’t be the only group to face these challenges, but they can certainly be more prepared and learn from this experience. Thank you for your perspective, Carolyn.


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