crisis communications

#Chipotle Marketing Challenge

After a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness at Chipotle restaurants around the U.S., the company is launching a massive marketing campaign to restore its image. 

After a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness at Chipotle restaurants around the U.S., the company is launching a massive marketing campaign to restore its image. 

Chipotle, which has faced dozens of food safety problems across the country over the past several months, is launching a massive marketing campaign to woo back its customers.

The company is closing its doors at each of its locations – there are more than 1,900 in the U.S. – for a few hours on February 8 for a food safety discussion with all Chipotle employees. This is a respected brand, but what will it take for you to walk through Chipotle's doors and order a burrito?

Share with us your marketing strategy for Chipotle. Comment on this blog or share your thoughts on Twitter at #ChipotleMarketingChallenge.

We will share what we learn in a future blog.

Good Intentions, Bad Taste

It doesn't take a bad deed to plunge into online hot water. All it takes is poor judgment.

SpaghettiOs, a division of Campbell Soup, learned that the hard way when it posted a well-intentioned tweet to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. The tweet displayed the pasta brand's lip-licking mascot in tennis shoes holding an American flag. The post ignited a firestorm on social media.

Typical of the indignant tweets was this one, "@SpaghettiOs really?? C'mon corporate morons. Ridiculous and frankly offensive."

SpaghettiOs took down the tweet and apologized for the offense. But it left pundits to wonder why someone thought it was necessary to interject a brand into a commemoration, raising questions about whether it was an attempt to exploit the occasion for profit.

In reality, the tweet probably represented a well-intentioned effort to add the brand's voice in remembering when Japanese planes bombed Hawaii, catapulting a stunned United States into World War II. It's doubtful the corporate tweeter was thinking about sales or profits. He or she was trying to engage online.

This is where judgment should have entered the picture. Someone should have paused before hitting the "tweet" button to assess potential reaction to the post.

Directions to the Road to Redemption

Dear Ms. Deen,

As one of "those people" who wrote about you and told "lies," I wanted to take this opportunity to offer specific suggestions on how you can hop on the road to redemption.

What you have tried so far isn't working. You have lost sponsors, business partners and your cookbook publisher. Even Wal-Mart dumped you.

Your videos and appearance on the Today Show came across as whiny apologies. They weren't convincing. 

You describe yourself as a 66-year-old woman of the South. Now you need to be a woman of the modern South. It is time for you to move from victim to agent of change.

The road to redemption isn't lined with contorted parables about the sinless throwing the first stones at the sinners. Redemption requires a genuine, demonstrable change. It is all about you, not anyone else.

I listened over the weekend to "crisis experts" fumble over the question of what you should do. Those of us who throw stones also should be willing to build bridges. So here are my sincere suggestions of how you can find and travel the road to redemption:

Your status as celebrity chef is a perfect stage to show you have learned from this experience and really changed. 

  • Reach out to African-American chefs to collaborate on a cookbook that celebrates and showcases how black Americans have contributed — from their slave roots through today — to what we now think of as Southern cooking. This could lead to a cooking show where you demonstrate a respectful posture toward African-American culinary peers as together you and they unfold the history of recipes, cooking styles and use of indigenous Southern ingredients. As opposed to a solemn documentary, the show could be infused with your on-stage energy to make it fun, useful and enlightening. 

Paula Deen: Deep-Fried Toast

You know you are in deep-fat trouble when a pork producer drops your celebrity contract. For Paula Deen, it is the latest fallout from her fall from grace after admitting to uttering racial slurs.

The Food Network dropped Deen's cooking show, which catapulted the queen of deep fry into national prominence, and now Smithfield Hams has signed her off at its spokesperson.

"Smithfield condemns the use of offense and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind. Therefore, we are terminating our partnership with Paula Deen," said a company statement.

Deen posted two online videos (the second was a do-over) apologizing for past "mistakes," while her company publicist explained, "She was born 60 years ago when America's South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus, This not today."

At least the publicist understands the problem — that's how the world was 60 years ago, not now. Deen gave an interview in 2012 where she inexplicably defended the merits of slavery.

And so we have yet another case study of self-immolating a brand.

This isn't the first time Deen has been in boiling water. She took heat last year for belatedly admitting she was diabetic after years of promoting carb and cholesterol food bombs. She told an interviewer she didn't plan on letting her diagnosis — or the calorie count of her recipes — interfere with how she wanted to eat.

Delivering Bad News

Stuff happens, and it may fall on your shoulders to let employees or customers know. You need to prepare to deliver the bad news simply, honestly and in a timely way.

Writing for, Christina Miranda says your audience isn't going to like hearing about a price increase, a canceled staff bonus, service cuts or layoffs. "That's why it's called bad news," Miranda says.

A marketing PR professional, Miranda offers five tips for delivering bad news, which we've distilled to three:

1. Say it simply.  Bumbling, pussyfooting or stalling won't work. Prepare to spit out your bad news as simply and straightforwardly as possible. Avoid jargon, legalese and fluff. Don't try to sugar-coat the bad news with "good news." Miranda notes, this will raise your audience's B.S. radar, heighten negative emotions and "trivialize serious news by not treating it with the respect it deserves."

2. Be honest.  Attempts at spin will be transparent to your already bummed out audience. They will respect — and expect — the truth, the whole truth. Your job is to give them the truth, with appropriate detail and context. Allow questions and provide direct answers. Your emotions also need to be honest. An employee who dies on the job or a layoff requires a different emotional response than announcing a price hike or service cuts.

3. Be timely.  The phrase "there is never a good time for bad news" is false. The time to deliver bad news is when it happens. Communication may not always be instantaneous, but it needs to be urgent. The grapevine spreads news, good or bad, quickly, so you can't procrastinate if you want to let your audience in on the bad news before it hears from other sources. Timely communication allows you to tell your side of the story, which is critical to retaining goodwill and loyalty.

Engage, Not Hide in a Crisis

"I just returned all my clif bars to Trader Joes. Not a problem. They didn't know about the problem with the Organic brown rice syrup containing arsenic yet. I sure hope that Clif bars comes out with an alternative and a explanation. I also hope, I didn't jeopardize my health."

This isn't the kind of post you want on your company Facebook page. But it is the kind of post you earn by failing to respond to a question with the same urgency it is asked.

Clif Bar is a well-known and well-liked maker of nutritious, organic food. Go to any marathon or road bike event and you will find Clif Bars everywhere as a source of quick, healthy energy.

"Good food provides health, joy and energy, and is a delight to the senses," says the Clif Bar website. "And food, made right, can make the world a better place."

Unfortunately, the website's home page doesn't include any timely commentary about a study released last week raising concerns about arsenic levels in brown rice syrup, a sweetening ingredient found in Clif Bars, as well as infant formula and other high energy bars.

There is a natural place on the website for this commentary to say — "We recognize that food matters top our families, our communities and our planet — as our food choices affect the physical, social and environmental fabric of our lives." But the commentary is missing.

There are more than 91,000 Facebook fans on Clif Bar's page and a number of them asked the company for an explanation. Here is what one fan got on February 17:

"Thanks for taking the time to contact us. At Clif Bar & Company, food safety is our number one priority and your health is paramount. All Clif Bar & Company foods fully comply with U.S. laws and regulations and our own strict quality standards. We are aware of the 2/16/12 brown rice syrup study. It is important to understand that arsenic exists naturally in the soil, water and air, and trace levels can be found in all rice, and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and seafood. Low levels of this naturally occurring substance do not pose a safety concern. We have a dedicated food safety and quality assurance staff that makes sure our ingredients and our foods are healthy and nutritious. We appreciate your question."

Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish

Delta Airlines proved the old adage true last week that trying to squeeze a penny out of a sale can bring down a ton of bad press.

A YouTube video titled "Delta Airlines Welcomes Soldiers Home" shows two soldiers returning from Afghanistan who say the airline charged them $200 apiece for a fourth piece of luggage, which contained their military-issued weapons.

As the Associated Press reported: With a bite to his voice, Sergeant Fred Hilliker of Allendale, Mich. closes the video: "Good business model, Delta. Thank you. We're actually happy to be back to America. God bless America. Not happy, not happy at all. Appreciate it. Thank you."

The video was posted Tuesday and by the next day there was a Facebook page calling for a boycott of Delta Airlines.

Airline officials responded quickly by apologizing to the soldiers and modifying their baggage charge policy for returning soldiers, but apparently not before some dissembling and confusing steps to get reimbursement for the charges from the Department of Defense for the charges.

Apparently Delta isn't alone in charging soldiers for more than three bags. But that doesn't make the policy any savvier.

"The incident underscores how quickly a company's reputation can be tarnished when a Web video, online picture or posting goes viral," observed the AP reporter covering the story. "Airline passengers have made no secret of their hatred of baggage fees, which have become common in recent years."

Instead of a lame blog posted by an anonymous customer service representative, Delta Airlines would be better off empowering its front-line employees to make smart decisions at the point of customer contact. And if you don't want to rely on the wisdom of airline clerks, then the top brass should be alert to how company policies can explode in their face.

Social Media an Important Channel for Communication After Disaster in Japan

Last week, I flew through Tokyo on one of the first flights allowed though the Narita airport after the earthquake, and had an underlying sense of fear the whole time. After one month without access to television or the Internet, I returned to the United States and spent my first days back catching up on news, most of which was on the aftermath of the devastating 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan.

What surprised me was that in spite of the earthquake, Japan’s Internet was still available, which allowed for the widespread use of social media by survivors to let loved ones know that they were okay. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo encouraged U.S. citizens in Japan to update their social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace) and to use SMS texting to let family members know they were okay. ‘Facebook stories’ was also a popular platform where families and loved ones connected and let each other know they were okay.

GT’s Kombucha: Case Study of Inaction

So, what is kombucha, you may ask? It’s a Chinese tea that contains live microorganisms, essential nutrients, probiotics, amino acids, antioxidants and polyphenols that contribute to overall health and wellness. It’s been used as a healing tonic for centuries across several cultures worldwide.

GT’s Kombucha has become a popular U.S. brand during the last decade. Dave, GT’s founder, created his blend to help his ailing mom battle with breast cancer. She’s still living today.