I might as well add my thoughts to the conversation around Chipotle and their unfortunate situation. Yesterday I drove by the Chipotle location where several of my fellow Skagitonians were sickened by e.coli–so the issue is close to home.
But what lessons are here for crisis communication?
To me the most interesting question is not about how Chipotle is responding to the crisis, but how branding affects reputation. Chipotle has been exceptionally aggressive in attempting to position itself against competitors as a healthier provider of food. It’s touted its organic and non-GMO credentials communicating that Chipotle food is better for you than what you get at other restaurants. It reminds me a bit of BP with their “Beyond Petroleum” branding. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the realities of both BP and Chipotle were that they still had to (and have to) deal with the fact that BP is mostly an oil company and Chipotle is a fast food company dealing with the normal issues of sourcing and handling food. The truth is, and the Chipotle situation may help people understand this better, is that some supposedly healthier food sources may not be subject to the same inspection and government scrutiny as the traditional sources. Just like bottled water, unlike tap water, is not subject to government testing for safety. I suspect that the effort to buy local and as direct from the farmer as possible may be part of the problem as wholesome and preferable as that may seem.
My thought is that any brand looking to establish a kind of “holier-than-thou” brand strategy, one that attempts to grab a moral high ground, needs to consider what happens to their brand when things go wrong. Starbucks is an example in trying to establish itself at the forefront of social changes. Certainly the unfortunate CEO of the Seattle company who sought to address the real concern about wage equality by giving everyone a $70,000 per year salary has found there are some problems with that approach.
Chipotle is also an innocent victim of the cascading effect that we teach in crisis management. “Bad things tend to come in threes,” is the old saying. But this is especially true in crisis management because of the normal way the media covers these things. When something bad happens they immediately look at the record (easy these days with the internet) and try to show a pattern. Then, with media and public attention focused on the company, anything else that happens in that window of focus, immediately becomes part of the story and contributes to the narrative of bad behavior. In Chipotle’s case, the novovirus sickness in Boston has apparently nothing to do with the e.coli illness on the West Coast, but because they both involve food related illnesses and Chipotle they are linked. One plus one becomes a lot more than two.
No doubt Chipotle has its branding and reputation work cut out for it. They do need to show more empathy for those who became ill, need to communicate (which they have) what they are doing to ensure food safety, and I would say they should also say they are doing a top-level review of food sourcing and inspection protocols. I think rather than talking much about organics and GMOs they are going to have to be talking about ensuring protection from pathogens–a much more serious food safety and health issue.