Select Page

Laura BaddishFor food producers, distributors, and restaurants, there are few crises more horrifying or potentially devastating for business than an E. coli outbreak. A cluster of Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in Washington state, mostly centered around Portland, Oregon, became the latest establishments to make national headlines for spreading the dread bacterium to around 40 people who dined there between October 14th and 23rd. This terrible development warrants considerable coverage. E. coli is painful, debilitating, and potentially fatal. It causes dehydration, bloody diarrhea, and (in the worst cases) kidney failure.

For consumers, the threat is obvious. As a result, these sorts of tragedies are totally unacceptable within the food industry. So, when they do occur, the response must be swift, decisive, and effective. Chipotle Mexican Grill has exemplified several best practices both leading up to and immediately following this debacle worth examining and embracing.

By far, the consensus among experts is that Chipotle will weather this PR storm with little lasting damage. Here are three reasons that, although this same chain of events has bankrupted other companies, Chipotle will survive basically untarnished.

It Is A Popularity Contest

Chipotle’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past few years, reaching such a velocity that even the recent E. coli story will be unable to slow or meaningfully alter its trajectory. Chipotle has transformed the fast food landscape in a monumental way, stepping in where mainstays had faltered by offering the level of quality the on-the-go market had been sorely missing. When the food truly is excellent enough, it creates a buffer of sorts by increasing consumer tolerance for these kinds of developments. Coverage of Chick-fil-A as an anti-gay organization is another example. The company puts out such beloved products that its popularity was more or less unaffected by a public outcry. This isolated E.coli outbreak in the Northwest is not likely to make much of a dent in the mainstream consumer’s decision making process when his or her lunch break rolls around.

Leverage Your Goodwill

Another huge asset to Chipotle’s ability to combat this PR challenge is its longstanding commitment to transparency. A central component of Chipotle’s brand identity revolves around a stated and heavily emphasized mission to support healthy, sustainable food. Over the years, the company has taken strides to put this people-before-profit core value into action. They earned excellent media coverage when they removed carnitas from the menu after an exhaustive search failed to turn up the suppliers from which to source the meat that met Chipotle’s stringent standards. By cementing a longstanding identity as a company that is willing to slash profit to support the best interests of their customers, when a problem does arise, consumers are much more willing to believe that the company is doing what needs to be done to resolve the issue with the same pro-active attitude. Self-improvement has become on-brand for Chipotle, which is enormously helpful in situations like this E. coli one.

Engage It Head-On

The most important thing to do in that face of a PR crisis like this one is make it abundantly clear that you are willing to tackle the problem head-on. Chipotle has issued media statements, voluntarily closed restaurants, hired food safety consulting firms to assess and improve food safety processes, and displayed a clear willingness to engage directly with the issue. This sort of openness is non-negotiable when vying for consumers’ forgiveness.