Popular food chain Chipotle has had a rough year, to put it lightly. After several reported outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus at various locations across the country, the chain has been overwhelmed with negative press. And, with negative press comes a significant drop in sales and stock. Needless to say, the company was in need of massive damage control.
You might remember how Jack in the Box dealt with a similar (albeit much more serious) fiasco in the ‘90s when four patrons died as a result of its undercooked meat. However, thanks to its well-executed crisis management, no one currently associates the chain with one of the worst food-poisoning incidents ever to hit the states. Quite the contrary: Jack in the Box is now considered by many consumer advocacy groups to be an industry leader in food safety and health procedures, and it has the 1993 outbreak to thank for it. In the wake of the disaster, the company did not attempt to cover up its mistakes. Rather, it publicized common food safety issues and explained how it was setting new standards to ensure its locations went above and beyond to ensure its patrons’ health and safety. Now, Chipotle is adopting a similar tactic.
On Monday, the chain announced it would temporarily close more than 2,000 of its locations while it dedicated time to informing its employees of several new food safety measures to prevent future outbreaks. At first glance, a nationwide closure may seem like a pretty hefty risk (and cost), and in many ways it is. For one thing, several other businesses—like Moe’s Southwest Grill and Freshii—were quick to capitalize on Chipotle’s temporary closure, offering lunchtime specials in an effort to convert patrons. However, with big risk often comes big reward. Despite the large cost of closing its restaurants during lunch hour, it appears Chipotle has strategically launched a PR campaign that will have a very successful three-prong effect.
Its first order of business: damage control. By temporarily closing its locations in the name of food safety, Chipotle is proving to the public exactly how seriously it is taking the recent outbreaks. Like Jack in the Box, it isn’t attempting to cover up its mistakes, but is rather using them as a platform for change. Just hours after closing, Chipotle had become the top-trending subject on Facebook (FB). Suddenly, the conversation surrounding the company had been shifted from E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus to food safety—not a coincidence, but rather a well thought-out plan. In fact, the company sought to capitalize on the buzz even further by announcing it would be live-tweeting its meeting, a clever way to let the public know exactly how it plans to go above and beyond to ensure a similar incident never happens again. Furthermore, the transparency with which Chipotle is tackling the issue is something that resonates incredibly well with the modern consumer, particularly millennials.
They expect a certain level of authenticity from the businesses they support, and in its truthful and unembellished approach to the matter, Chipotle is sure to catch their attention. However, if Chipotle were to stop at mere damage control, it would be missing a massive opportunity to capitalize on its substantial media attention.
To make the most of its time in the spotlight, Chipotle launched its second plan of action: Highlight several positive aspects of the company and its culture, thus turning disaster into opportunity. For example, during the meeting, Chipotle announced a $10 million program that would help local food suppliers adhere to its new safety guidelines. Additionally, in an artful one-two approach that not only addressed norovirus concerns, but also proved its progressive loyalty to its employees, the company revealed it will be providing fully paid sick days to ill employees who are now required to stay home an additional five days from the time their symptoms disappear. Now, the restaurant chain has garnered nationwide attention for not only its new and improved health standards, but also for its dedication to its staff, as well as small, local farms.
The third piece of the plan involves bringing patrons back in its doors. What’s the fastest and easiest way to do this? Free lunch, of course. During its temporary closure, Chipotle offered a free burrito to any patron who texted “rain check.” The result: Thousands of individuals will once again place their trust in the chain. Even with all of its reform and positive press, Chipotle is surely hip to the fact that the most difficult part will be luring customers back in its doors. And while offering up complimentary burritos may cost the company in the short term, it will likely have a long-term effect in that it will help reinstate nationwide trust in the brand. Now, even those individuals who have never eaten at a Chipotle may opt in for a free bite. Assuming everyone’s experience is a positive one and they do not wind up ill as a result, diners will not only establish new faith in the eatery, but will also be much more likely to come back for more in the future.
By combining damage control tactics, positive press, and driving traffic to its locations, Chipotle is well on its way to resurrecting the customer loyalty and trust that was lost, while also attracting some new business in the process. And, while it may be one of the more costly PR stunts this decade, it is one that will likely pay off significantly in the long run. The bonus: It seems the company’s new health precautions and initiatives will actually set a very positive standard for its industry in the process.
Tyler Barnett is the president of Tyler Barnett PR.