From Burritos to E. Coli: How Chipotle Crisis Communications Saved the Day

The recent E. Coli outbreak has Chipotle's PR working overtime. Here's how the Chipotle crisis is a great communications case study.

By Cori Hays
The Hoffman Agency, Portland-Vancouver

It’s no secret that Chipotle has been in crisis mode for the past few months. Since December, there have been more than 50 cases of E. coli linked to Chipotle restaurants across the United States. The company’s stock fell, the CDC launched its investigation and things weren’t looking good.

With two different strains of this nasty bacteria wreaking havoc, experts expected the public to turn on the beloved Mexican fast-casual chain. However, by applying some strategic PR and crisis management, Chipotle was able to soften the blow.

In my opinion, Chipotle did everything right in this situation.

From the beginning, the company took a hands-on approach to make sure it kept the public’s trust. Once Chipotle’s corporate office caught wind of the E. coli outbreak, it immediately issued a statement, using an apologetic tone instead of blaming the problem on external causes. It continued to issue updates as the CDC’s investigation status changed. By taking the blame and being proactive, the company gained a little favor in the public’s eyes.

But Chipotle’s most impressive move? It voluntarily closed 43 locations in Oregon and Washington — sacrificing profit for customer safety. In addition, the restaurant chain tested more than 2,500 locations for E. coli, working closely and cooperating with the CDC’s investigation. The restaurant chain even adopted new safety measures to prevent future outbreaks.

Crisis management wasn’t the only thing that saved Chipotle. The company’s biggest strengths are its cult-like following and the well-established brand it spent years building.

Being a member of the bandwagon myself, I wasn’t about to let something as silly as E. coli stop me from getting my hands on some guac. Since opening, Chipotle has been committed to putting its customers first and serving the freshest, healthiest foods — offering customers “food with integrity.” It’s known for using organic, sustainably grown and naturally raised ingredients — something you won’t find at any other fast-food restaurants.

Last week, Chipotle announced that it would be closing all of its stores for one day to implement new food safety regulations and answer employees’ questions. This action further demonstrates the company’s proactive approach to resolve the issue and ensure their customers’ safety.

So should any of this E. coli business stop you from eating at Chipotle? Absolutely not, because this well-loved brand isn’t going anywhere. After all, Chipotle customers are “totally willing to throw up a little” for the sake of a glorious, foil-wrapped burrito.

(Source of Feature Image: Mr. TinDC Flickr)

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