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PR Lessons from Chipotle's Response Strategy: Is Your Restaurant Ready for Its Crisis?

Mike Swenson (1)By Mike Swenson, President, Crossroads

The Chipotle E. Coli crisis has once again heightened the public’s awareness about the scare of foodborne illness in our favorite restaurants. In addition to having an intensely loyal customer base, Chipotle’s fall has been much harder due to its status as a brand that touts fresh ingredients and the promise of sustainable food practices. Sales suffered and their stock price dropped.

Chipotle did not help itself in how they have handled the situation thus far. The primary faux pas they made was not explaining quickly enough what steps they were taking to fix the problem. In fact, they still haven’t been fully transparent. They have closed all their stores for a half-day to implement changes, with the public anxiously awaiting the outcome.

The hit to the Chipotle stock price is a new dynamic public restaurant brands must now face if faced with a foodborne illness crisis. Now, another public brand, Buffalo Wild Wings, had ten people sickened at one location from a yet-identified illness. As reported by Nation’s Restaurant News, the popular chain saw investors punish it in the market for a day.

Obviously, the primary concern of any restaurant experiencing a foodborne illness is the health, safety and wellbeing of its customers. Stock prices can recover. After the health of patrons, the most important issue facing a brand in crisis is the damage to its reputation. A brand’s reputation is a moving target. A crisis can quickly drain the savings account of consumer trust and respect built up over years.

In today’s environment, crises move with lightning speed. Brands that have a focused crisis management process in place can react quickly and have the best chance to protect their reputations. Those brands that have no process and reinvent the wheel with every crisis event have no chance. It’s that simple today.

We encourage brands to practice “real” crisis management, which focuses on the prevention, preparation and management of all crises. It is the antidote to the usual approach of reacting to individual crisis events as they happen. As daunting as crisis communication planning sounds, it can, and should, be straightforward, and can be completed in five simple steps:

  1. Identify a set crisis team representing all key functions of the organization
  2. Understand all the risks that can occur and keep those updated with changing times
  3. Develop one roadmap for how all crises are handled and then customize to fit individual crises
  4. Develop three to five key messages for each of the identified risks
  5. Revisit the plan on an annual basis to ensure the team members, process and messages are up-to-date

Death and taxes are not the only inevitable things in life. The third one is that a crisis will happen to you and your brand at some point. Are you truly ready to handle it and keep your reputation intact?

Mike Swenson serves as president of Crossroads, one of the leading independent public relations firms in the U.S. Headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., Crossroads is a Barkley partner company and member of IPREX. Learn more at or @crossroadsus on Twitter.

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