Chipotle and the New Crisis Playbook

Beef burrito
Beef burrito

On February 8, Chipotle closed all of its stores for a national sales meeting about food safety. It did not do so quietly or out of the goodness of its heart. It did it because its initial response to last year’s E. coli and norovirus outbreaks only made things worse.

And then it happened again.

The bar is now even higher. Under these circumstances, do you start to play defense? Or is it really a good idea to attract even more global media coverage to your failures and keep the story alive?

It is if you’re trying to win in the new crisis economy.

The Crisis Economy

The traditional crisis playbook dictates that you distance your brand from the crisis and move on quickly, but crisis management today poses different challenges. If you try to minimize the problem, the public will amplify it. If you blame others (even if it’s their fault), you’ll be accused of dodging your responsibilities. If you claim you fixed it (even if you have), people simply won’t believe you.

In the new crisis economy, once a crisis starts, it’s incredibly difficult to regain control. This new context requires a new approach. Instead of trying to make people forget, use crises to make them remember.

Just as good drivers know to steer into a skid rather than wrench the wheel against it, tomorrow’s communicators know that the best way out of a crisis is often to lean into it.

Crisis Doesnt Have to Equal Calamity: The New Playbook

The question is “How do you use a crisis as a platform to defend and ultimately strengthen your brand?”

Chipotle’s recent moves suggest it’s pursuing a new approach, attempting to take advantage of its crisis and emerge even stronger. The result is a crisis playbook for the modern age.

1. Acknowledge skepticism, and own up. It doesn’t matter how “good” a company is or how much goodwill it’s earned; people will turn against it in crisis because humans are hardwired to be skeptical of large corporations. Companies facing crises need to recognize that. But they can also take advantage of it.

In December, Chipotle’s CEO went public to talk about the health scare. Instead of trying to put the crisis in the rearview mirror, he embraced it and used it to lay out a platform to make the company better. Now that it has happened again, he must maintain the same public face, acknowledging the issue and putting it into the larger context of Chipotle’s efforts to improve.

2. Be humble, and be human. The people who caught E. coli got sick, and if Chipotle’s CEO had pulled out the traditional legalese, the company would have looked callous. He didn’t. He apologized, recognized that people were struggling, and expressed his remorse: “I feel terrible.”

This approach may be obvious, but it isn’t common. Lawyers are there to protect companies, but they’re not copywriters, and they shouldn’t manage the PR response to a crisis. To be credible today, you need to be human.

3. Don’t defend. Reframe. You don’t spend time focusing on why your old product didn’t work when you’re launching a new one. You highlight the new one’s benefits. The same is true in crisis management.

Chipotle could spend time talking about how many stores the virus was found in and what was done to remedy it. Instead, the company is turning crisis into consumer benefit by talking about how it will become the leader in food safety for the future.

Here again, the recent store closing creates a choice: respond to the specific situation or put the new problem in the context of the broader solution.

4. Symbolize change. Today, it isn’t enough to say you’re changing — you need to demonstrate it. And one of the most effective tools for doing so is a public, symbolic gesture. In crisis, you create a symbol by doing something that’s against your short-term financial interest as a way of proving your resolve.

Following the model Starbucks used in 2008, Chipotle has employed the “symbol strategy” with its store closure. Unfortunately, it didn’t make its intentions known and didn’t use the opportunity to send a clear message of change. It was the right action, but it was executed in the wrong way.

5. Create a new origin story. Every great company has a compelling origin story — a reason to believe in its mission. Sometimes, these origin stories are redemption stories rather than creation stories.

When news leaked about Chipotle’s food safety issues, much of the food industry looked on with at least a little bit of schadenfreude. The industry watched as the company that aggressively touted its “food with integrity” failed that concept’s most basic test. For Chipotle, this crisis can be a story of redemption. And when it launches a new advertising campaign, that story should be at the center of it.

By keeping a crisis top of mind, you show that you’re not trying to sweep it under the rug. By talking about it more, you give people permission to try you again.

Crises are inevitable, but if you own your crisis, adopt a human response, and create a symbol for change, your business can emerge stronger than ever. Chipotle, at least, looks like it’s betting on that approach. And it just might be the perfect crisis management tool for a skeptical, connected public.

This article was written by Michael Maslansky from Business2Community and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.