How Chipotle Can Unroll Its Crisis

UnknownThe Chipotle restaurant chain, after helping to transform American taste, especially for Millennials, from fast food to fast casual, is in crisis. But are they acting like it?

It wasn’t too long ago when Chipotle’s biggest PR issue was the cost of its guacamole. But now, after newsworthy food poisoning outbreaks in multiple corners of the country, customers are making other choices, providing that PR crises can negatively impact business. The Wall Street Journal reports the chain’s same-store sales are down as much as 10 percent.

You would think with that kind of drop, the company would be seeking then seizing any opportunity to tell its story. One factor working against them is that an important part of the story, what caused the latest outbreak, still isn’t known by health officials. Still the company has a plan to improve its food safety. The challenge is it includes more centralization, which is counter to Chipotle’s local brand promise. Yes, it’s a mess.

All things considered, the company doesn’t appear to be doing all it can to deliver its message in an effort to increase its lines. Last week, the company’s CEO apparently did just one TV interview, on the “Today Show.” That reaches nearly 5 million viewers, which is a big number in today’s media environment, but does it reach the customer base? This morning, a full page, 7-paragraph “open letter” ad appeared in dozens of print editions of local newspapers. That also reaches a relatively large audience, but large enough, considering the Millennial crowd that appears to be the core customer? (By the way, the first generation to spend more in restaurants than on food for the home, we’re told). Some augmentation with promoted tweets and the chain’s Facebook page linking to the letter likely helped. But where’s the video that shows the younger audiences, not just tells them, what is happening and will happen? Also, many efforts seem geared to the investment community with much of the coverage focused on share price. That can often be priority one to the executives but is no way to get out of a crisis.

Sure, it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback. But after years or working with these situations, including a food scare earlier this year, it can often be clear when a company shifts into a mode where customer communication becomes paramount. It just doesn’t consistently appear that Chipotle wants to do whatever it takes to improve safety, demonstrate that to the public and win back trust and business.

The most important thing for a consumer-facing company to decide is that the health and safety of its customers shall be its highest priority. If the brand has to change, so be it. If it’s going to be expensive to make sure illness doesn’t result in the same ways again, so be it. That’s easy to write here, but other companies have proven time and time again that embracing and then living that priority in every way is the only way out of a situation like this.