In late October, nearly two dozen people reported having an E. coli infection after eating at Chipotle restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. Shortly after the incident, Chipotle closed 43 restaurants in the surrounding area due to food safety concerns. Although only eight restaurants were found to be contaminated, Chipotle closed additional locations as a precaution.
In the days after the outbreak, Chipotle was applauded for its positive outreach. The restaurant chain released an FAQ, welcomed questions regarding the outbreak and remained transparent as the issue progressed. Outlets wrote articles applauding the positive PR strategy following the outbreak. A couple weeks later, Chipotle made headlines again when its co-CEOs appeared publically disjointed.
In addition to crisis communications, leaders need to be on the same page when a crisis hits. According to Fortune, Chipotle co-CEO Monty Moran recently spoke at an industry conference for investors and shifted blame from Chipotle to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Instead of moving the conversation forward, Moran complained about the sensationalized headlines. However true he may be, it left loyal Chipotle goers with a bad taste in their mouth.
Steve Ells, Chipotle’s founder, chairman and co-CEO, took another approach by running a letter from him outlining the chain’s comprehensive food safety plan in major daily newspapers. In the Dec. 16 letter, Ells mentioned the chain has hired outside food safety consultants to look at the food safety standards and is implementing high-resolution sampling and testing that is “unprecedented in the restaurant industry” to prevent contaminants such as E. coli.
Ells gets PR brownie points for his statement, but the disunity between him and Moran took away from Ells’ overall message. The lesson we can learn from Chipotle’s recent outbreak is the need for unified leadership and positive reactive PR.
Despite the company’s 20 percent dip in share price, it’s not likely that Chipotle’s recent blunders will keep the company out of the game for long. Chipotle is still steadily gaining popularity and continues to develop new locations. In fact, the line at the Chipotle near me in Minneapolis still has its continuous line out the door.