In another life, I worked as the media relations manager for Jack in the Box Inc., the San Diego-based quick-serve chain known for its clown-headed marketing icon, hamburgers and, unfortunately, a deadly food-safety crisis in 1993 that brought the term E.coli into the mainstream.

While my tenure at Jack began six years after the crisis, when the company was on the upswing and preparing to go public, I was always keenly aware of the crisis and how it impacted every facet of the business. Though the company was once on the precipice, it didn’t give up. It took a tragedy and turned it into an unwavering commitment to making food-safety the top priority and establishing standards and guidelines that revolutionized an industry.

After living and breathing food-safety communications for 10 years, I’m always curious to see how other companies respond to a food-related crisis. In 2015, we saw some well-known and beloved brands, in particular Chipotle Mexican Grill and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, shift into crisis mode as food-safety recalls or illness besieged their businesses. So, how did they rate in their crisis communications response?

Jeni’s
When a pint of ice cream pulled randomly from a grocery store freezer in Nebraska tested positive for listeria in April, Jeni’s moved quickly to close its scoop shops, recall all ice cream from retail locations and shut down production. Though there were no reported illnesses, the company took these extreme measures to ensure that there wouldn’t be.

To the legion of Jeni’s faithful fans, this was a sign that the company placed the health and safety of its customers above the bottom line. Customers responded by posting virtual and literal love notes of encouragement online and on scoop shop doors and windows.

Jeni’s also made use of every communications avenue to keep customers informed about the recall, including its website and social media. The company was transparent and open, both of which foster goodwill and trust from consumers, which was vitally important when the company had to recall product a second time following the discovery of listeria at its production facility.

Chipotle
Much like Jeni’s, Chipotle has customers that will brave long lunchtime lines and packed parking lots to get their favorite made-to-order burrito. The company has built its reputation on doing things differently from other quick-serve restaurants and serving fresh “food with integrity.”

Since October, the restaurant chain has been plagued by a series of food-related illnesses in nine states; some have been attributed to E.coli, others salmonella or a norovirus. In response, the CEO and founder Steve Ells apologized to customers on the Today Show and followed up with a full-page newspaper apology that outlined the company’s renewed commitment to improving its food-safety procedures. The letter from Ells is also posted on the company’s home page and is accompanied by a section devoted to a food safety update and FAQs. These are both great features, but they are posted in the middle of the page instead of at the top. This situation is still evolving and it needs to be more prominent.

Some PR experts have dinged Chipotle for seeming to focus initially on shareholders and spending too much time explaining the difference between salmonella and a norovirus instead of addressing the situation with customers.

For me, it was comments from the company’s CFO blaming sensational media headlines and the CDC’s reporting methods for the company’s woes that really diminished Chipotle’s PR efforts. When a crisis strikes, you own it and do everything you can to solve the problem, address questions and concerns and then put the framework into place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Chipotle has announced that it plans to close all of its restaurants for a few hours on Feb. 8 to allow its roughly 60,000 employees to attend a food-safety meeting via satellite feed. This is certainly a bold gesture and demonstrates the company’s commitment to righting its food-safety ship. But, I have to ask the question – should it really have come to this?

Crisis Communication Grades

Jeni’s: A
Columbus’ ice cream queen was quick, transparent, open and consistent in communicating the situation to customers. Now, the company needs an exceptional food-safety program that matches the quality of its communications and product.

Chipotle: B-
Chipotle did a lot of things right, but the extent and longevity of its food-related crisis showed the holes in its crisis communication capability as well as its food-safety program.The company also loses points for the CFO trying to scapegoat the media and the CDC.

What grade would you give Jeni’s and Chipotle for the handling of their food-related crises? What would you have done differently? Share your comments with us.

 

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