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Saving Chipotle’s Brand: Don’t Overlook the Power of the Employee When Handling a Crisis

scott-sobelLatest reputation barometer study supports need for Chipotle and others to leverage employees as communication tools

By Scott Sobel, M.A. Media Psychology, President, Media & Communications Strategies, Inc.

It’s easy to second-guess the crisis mitigation steps the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain has taken since hundreds of employees and customers became ill at several different restaurant locations after ingesting food infected by the E. coli virus. Criticism becomes easier though if the right steps aren’t taken now that management has had time to pause, inhale a deep breath and more thoughtfully plan how to protect the brand and maybe, just maybe, improve products, systems and reputation while the business is under intense scrutiny. If handled correctly, a crisis can be a catalyst for improvement. More on that will be discussed later in this article.

Many outstanding questions remain, although there are obvious answers to some questions because of the chain’s current reputational malaise. Did the chain have an effective crisis plan in place? Did the managers react quickly enough by using all traditional and social mediums to communicate the best messages? Were the news cycles well managed? Will profits and investors continue to suffer as various investigations fester and attract more attention?

Unless there is another crisis event, the chain’s announcement for a February 8th national safety meeting for employees is the next biggest opportunity to really take proactive steps that can tighten the luffing sails of Chipotle’s PR ship. No public announcement has been posted for the exact agenda to be followed on the 8th but the importance of internal employee communication can’t be overstressed. Noted, Chipotle has not suffered criticism for having the February 8th meeting and closing stores during the meeting. Chipotle has been lambasted for not managing the headline of that announced meeting … the headline in some media would lead some reporters and consumers to believe Chipotle is closing stores forever! Example, look at this CNBC report: If the E. coli outbreak at Chipotle didn’t scare you enough, the latest headlines will.

“Chipotle Closing All Its Stores,” “Chipotle to Close All Its Restaurants,” or similar snippets spread across the web last week. If you scanned the headlines like me, you probably believed Chipotle was closing its stores forever.

I’ve personally seen many examples of effectively using employees as the best reputation ambassadors to the public. When I shifted my career from journalism to PR in the late 90’s our TCI cable and AT&T Broadband cable teams briefed all levels of the 30-thousand-plus divisional employees on how to answer customer and even media questions when we were fighting attacks on our service, accusations of monopolistic behavior and, at the same time, rolling out the evolving digital set-top box capabilities.

Fast forward to today’s communication environment and having Chipotle employees know what to say when facing curious and concerned customers glaring across a service counter is not enough. There is no doubt a good percentage of the chain’s  more than 50-thousand employees are hooked into all kinds of social media channels and can be useful ambassadors, if armed with the right things to communicate.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a Chipotle server spew the many-tiered company talking points to an inquiring journalist but there can be some very simple and heartfelt communication suggestions that can be part of a personal Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other social media exchange.  I am strongly suggesting there are very substantial reasons for Chipotle and other companies baking in the crisis spotlight to take advantage of their internal troops for external communications.

According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer results released just a few days ago:

“The Barometer reveals that respondents are increasingly reliant on a “person like yourself”, who, along with a regular employee, are significantly more trusted than a CEO or government official. On social networking and content-sharing sites, respondents are far more trusting of family and friends (78 percent) than a CEO (49 percent).”

Of course, a CEO’s visible leadership cannot be discounted. It would be good for Chipotle’s co-CEO’s to continue to be visible in non-official environments, e.g. eating their restaurant’s food, talking about new cleanliness measures, etc.  They need those powerful optics to offset other news report visuals of sick patrons and testimony before governmental committees. I can see the photo-ops and powerful commercials.

Not to get too far off point, one of the very best photo-opps I can remember as a TV reporter, and one that got the most viewer response, was when in 1996 then Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld dove into the Charles River to prove his commitment to cleaning up the water following innumerable pollution scares (take heed now Michigan governor following the Flint debacle).

So, let’s be realistic. Chipotle and literally every kind of company is vulnerable to a business-ending crisis. It’s how you prepare, how you execute plans and what you do for the long-term that spells victory or defeat. Armchair quarterbacking post crisis is very valuable for lessons learned but finger pointing for the sake of revenge serves no purpose. Your primary stake-holders, all of your audiences, eventually judge you and your product more based on how you handle the crisis than whether you could have prevented the crisis in the first place.

Scott Sobel is president of Media & Communications Strategies, Inc., a Washington, DC-based public relations firm that manages reputation and communications challenges of all kinds, worldwide. www.macstrategies.com. He is also a former corporate public relations practitioner; major market and TV network investigative journalist and a media psychologist.

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