Problem Solving

Props to Chipotle for Cooking Up Real Food Safety

Chipotle took a hit for slacking food safety procedures that resulted in sick customers, but now the company has responded with food safety steps that are significant and verifiable, which should ease concerns for patrons who have stayed away.

Chipotle took a hit for slacking food safety procedures that resulted in sick customers, but now the company has responded with food safety steps that are significant and verifiable, which should ease concerns for patrons who have stayed away.

We chopped Chipotle for mishandling a food safety crisis that sickened customers. Now it's time to give the Mexican fast food chain props for taking savvy steps to rebuild its reputation for "making better food accessible to everyone.”

In full-page print ads, Chipotle Founder and Co-CEO Steve Ells owns the crisis as he lays out specific ways the company will sharply improve its food handling practices. 

“In 2015, we failed to live up to our own food safety standards, and in so doing, we let our customers down. At that time, I made a promise to all of our customers that we would elevate our food safety program.”

The ad lists eight “important advancements” that include improving supply chain food handling, employing new technology in prepping food, training farmers to meet stricter food safety requirements and improved in-store food handling procedures.

The list goes further, citing actions that crisis counselors often recommend – credible, validated third-party evaluations and inspections.

Ells says Chipotle managers and field leaders will need certification from a nationally recognized institution, which he added is a “first for any national restaurant chain.”

Restaurant inspections will “dramatically increase,” conducted by both Chipotle inspection teams and independent auditors.

Chipotle will implement an advanced electronic tracking system to monitor food sources and be able to trace supplies that should be removed or not accepted.

Chipotle will also create an advisory council comprised of industry experts charged with “continually reviewing procedures and providing insight into new food safety advancements.” An unsolicited suggestion, expand the advisory committee to include an online panel of Chipotle consumers and listen to their concerns, praise and ideas. 

It wasn’t that long ago that Chipotle’s sharpest critics suggested scrapping the brand and starting over. Instead, Ells chose the path of weathering the storm, which has included a significant drop-off in business, and emerging with a redoubled commitment to food safety. The ads are in effect the coming out party for the Chipotle brand and its new standards.

The actions Ells laid out aren’t flashy, but they respond directly to consumer questions (and fears) about the fresh food Chipotle serves. Maybe the chain should have figured out sooner that fresh fast food has higher risks than processed food. Chipotle’s response, at least as described, appears genuine and likely to be effective in reassuring wary customers to return.

With the painful lesson that fresh food demands greater vigilance now learned, Chipotle can embark on being the brand that leads the way on both. If it does, Chipotle will have converted its crisis into an opportunity to become better than before.

‘Over-Exaggerating’ the Truth

Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Need a case example of how lying can cost you dearly? Look no further than Olympic gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte whose fabricated story about an armed robbery in Rio led to the loss of four prime endorsements by Speedo, Ralph Lauren, skin care firm Syneron-Candela and Japanese mattress maker airweave.

Lochte reportedly earned $2.3 million annually from his Olympic swimming sponsorships leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London, according to The Washington Post. One expert estimates Lochte's lifetime lost earnings from the four dropped sponsorships could be as much as $20 million.

In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Lochte took responsibility for the incident involving three other U.S. Olympians following a night of reverie that took a pit stop at a Rio gas station. Lochte admitted he was intoxicated and damaged a bathroom door. He was less definitive about other damage in the bathroom.

Lochte, who returned his hair to its normal shade of brown, also admitted “over-exaggerating” his encounter with a security guard who pulled his gun and pointed it at him. Lochte initially said he and his fellow swimmers were yanked from a cab and robbed at gunpoint. Now, he says, the guard confronted them after hearing loud noises in the bathroom and drew his weapon after Lochte acted aggressively. Lochte claims he was still drunk when he spun his robbery story.

While Lochte managed an apology to Brazil for not telling the truth, Brazilian authorities and news media are understandably not satisfied. Lochte’s untruthful tale touched a nerve in a country highly sensitive about its chronic crime rate. They correctly note Lochte only confessed to lying after surveillance camera video showed what really happened – or didn’t happen.

Intermixed in his apology, Lochte said some of the right things. But probably not enough of them. For one, he failed to say how it would make the situation right. That would require more than paying to repair the damage. It might take an act of attrition or a contribution to a cause dear to the heart of Brazilians. (Speedo said the company is donating $50,000 of Lochte’s fee to Save the Children, which will direct the money to add Brazilian children.}

Ralph Lauren removed Lochte's image from its website congratulating U.S. Olympians it sponsored. The company said Lochte’s deal was for the 2016 Olympics and wouldn’t be renewed.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has warned that punishments may lie ahead for Lochte.

At age 32, Lochte’s Olympic career is probably over anyway. His actions, which he described as “immature,” have put a serious dent in his reputation as well as his pocketbook. In the trade, he would be called “damaged goods.” Self-inflicted damaged goods.

Lochte may recover his reputation, and we sincerely hope he does take steps to do that. But his actions and prevarications are a stark reminder that reputation matters – and take only a few seconds to blow up.

Make Time Your Most Valuable Ally

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

In managing a complex, challenging issue, time can be your ally or your enemy. Make time your ally with disciplined anticipation, avoiding surprising and strong first impressions.

A client recently asked what is the most important factor in effectively managing a challenging issue. Without a doubt, the answer is time.

Time can be a friend or an enemy. Time can be on your side or an advantage for your opposition.

Because timing is so crucial, these actions take on greater significance:

Anticipation

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

How to prepare for and respond to a crisis and handle reputation management in difficult times. Cautionary tales and words of advice from our quarter-century in the business. 

Anticipating an issue can yield valuable time to develop a response, test messages, prepare materials and make initial contacts.

Anticipation cannot be a random act. Sensing an early wind of an emerging issue requires a disciplined approach of active listening. You need to read traditional media and tune in to alternative media where your detractors may congregate. Keep an eye on the New York Times bestseller list, which is a telling guide to what people are reading and consequently talking about. The same goes for issue-oriented movies that can create a pulse of interest in an issue sparked by a Hollywood star.

Surprise

Making a surprise announcement can be a disarming tactic. It also can be a destabilizing one.

Generally speaking, catching people by surprise is not a good thing. Your supporters don’t like being surprised. Surprising skeptics can reinforce their skepticism. Opponents can turn surprise announcements into launchpads for counteroffensives.

Using time wisely means not resorting to surprise for effect. You can be more intentional, even methodical in your decision-making, message development and advance outreach. The people you want to impress will the first to know, not the last.

First Impression

First impressions are the ones that usually stick and can influence how people view an issue as it evolves. Making a great first impression – and being the first to make an impression – is the greatest reward that time can give.

Major brands work hard on new product rollouts to make a great first impression, which can affect buy decisions. The same holds true on issues management. Making the first impression is a huge advantage in ultimately persuading people to your point of view.

When you tell your story first, and do so credibly, which can mean including third-party validation, you have your best shot at winning the day. When opponents tell their story first and you must respond defensively, your chances of prevailing diminish. It’s not a lost cause, but it often is an uphill battle.

Being first and being thoughtful and convincing is only possible if you have time and steward your time well.

Time is and always has been the greatest home field advantage. Never cede it to the visiting team.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Restoring Public Trust in DEQ

Long-time DEQ Director Dick Pedersen has resigned, leaving even bigger questions about the environmental agency’s future amid a controversy over its sluggish response to excessive levels of arsenic, cadmium and chromium in Portland neighborhoods.

Long-time DEQ Director Dick Pedersen has resigned, leaving even bigger questions about the environmental agency’s future amid a controversy over its sluggish response to excessive levels of arsenic, cadmium and chromium in Portland neighborhoods.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is in trouble. The agency was slow to identify and respond to warnings of high concentrations of arsenic, cadmium and chromium in Portland neighborhoods. Its respected director has resigned. Knowledgeable observers say DEQ has a shortage of scientific and technical personnel and may face difficulty recruiting the talent it needs.

That would be a lot to handle any time, but it’s an especially heavy load in an election year when Oregonians vote on a new governor. Chances are good DEQ will take its licks on the campaign stump as candidates try to make hay out of the agency’s shortcomings.

In recent times, DEQ has operated below the public and political radar. Some critics say that’s because DEQ has been timid in pushing environmental goals and willing to bend to compromise with industry.

While current concerns center on DEQ’s role in maintaining air quality, the agency also is in charge of water quality, waste management, hazardous material use reduction, vehicle exhaust inspections, spill clean-up and sustainability. DEQ is involved in issues as far-ranging as odor suppression and evaluating the environmental impact of coal exports. It also is engaged in the climate change conversation.

The immediate controversy has angered neighborhoods, school officials and candidates for offices in Portland and Multnomah County. The loss of Dick Pedersen, who has been as DEQ since 1996, raises questions about the future leadership of the agency. Before long, questions may arise about DEQ’s performance and competency in other ares of its responsibility.

Given all this uncertainty, what steps would you recommend DEQ take to regain public confidence? Governor Brown and the Environmental Quality Commission will select a replacement for Pedersen. What actions would you advise the new DEQ director to take to rebuild trust and the agency’s credibility?

Share your ideas and recommendations with us at garyc@cfmpdx.com. We will report on what you share with us, plus an idea or two of our own, in the Oregon Insider blog next week. If you prefer to share your ideas without attribution, we will honor that request.

Please send us your best thoughts by next Wednesday (March 9). We look forward to your comments on what DEQ and its new director should do.

Manage Issues from the Front, Not Rear

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on  Blue Bloods , but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on Blue Bloods, but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

The best position in which to manage an issue is from the front, not the rear. If you are chasing an issue, chances are you won’t catch up before you go over the cliff.

This is a painful lesson that some organizations learn the hard way. For some, it takes more than one mistake to learn that it is smart to anticipate problems and take steps before problems become crises.

Easier said than done, to be sure. But it can be done.

Chipotle is a poster child for the point. The company ballyhooed fresh food from local sources. You don’t have to be rocket scientist to anticipate potential problems in food safety that could – and apparently did – lead to serious health outbreaks at more than one of the burrito chain’s outlets.

Jack in the Box learned its lesson from a 1993 E. coli outbreak that killed four children, infected 732 people and left 178 victims permanently injured with kidney and brain damage. The fast food chain, which owns the Qdoba Mexican Eats franchise that is a Chipotle competitor, installed food safety measures up and down its supply chain. Jack in the Box hasn’t experienced a major problem with food safety since then.

Qdoba promises “food for people who love food,” which isn’t as enticing as food made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Company execs decided a weaker tagline was better than sicker customers.

Issue management is not reserved just for customer-facing problems. It applies equally to issues with neighbors, constituents, stakeholders and employees.

The Southeast Portland glassmakers that used cadmium and arsenic in their processes could easily have anticipated air contamination, regardless of whether they were operating within the boundaries of their air permits. While the businesses showed good judgment by suspending the use of those chemicals once data emerged that there was a problem, they would have displayed greater judgment by insisting on regular independent testing so they could detect the problem earlier.

Some problems are obvious; some are not. That’s why we advise organizations to undertake issue audits. An issue audit is a no-holds-barred process to identify and vet all kinds of potential problems – legal, financial, technical, operational, environmental and competitive. The list of problems then should undergo an evaluation to determine the most probable risks and the ones with the most serious potential consequences.

That is invaluable, if sometimes inconvenient information.

The matrix of problems should be assessed by a risk/benefit test. The risk with the highest likelihood of serious consequence is where you start. If you determine, the cost to remediate the problem is far cheaper than the outfall of a crisis involving the problem, then it is a no-brainer decision to fix it. That’s a great way to get ahead of a problem.

Some problems may be too expensive or technically challenging to fix. You have to employ different tactics to stay ahead of their curve toward crisis. That might involve an open house or creation of an advisory committee. It could require meeting with affected people one-on-one. Such tactics take time, but it could be time better spent than facing a battery of TV cameras and angry questions.

In an era when everyone with a smartphone is the equivalent of an investigative reporter and social media moves at light speed, getting in front of an issue is more important than ever. Detective Danny Reagan may catch the bad guy on every episode of Blue Bloods, but don’t count on the same script when you are chasing a really bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Headlines Reinforce Crisis Response Reality

It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

It shouldn't take a football team threatening not to play to spark a proactive response to a crisis, something University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe should have known.

Fresh front-page headlines tell an old story – how you respond to crisis affects your reputation as much or more than the crisis itself.

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe was pressured to resign after his indifferent response to on-campus racial incidents, including snubbing a group of protestors who surrounded his car demanding an opportunity to talk face-to-face.

Chipotle faces a sharp business drop-off after the trendy burrito chain cavalierly responded to more than 40 of its customers in Oregon and Washington coming down with E. coli food poisoning. The company’s sluggish response to the crisis will put a dent in its "food with integrity" slogan that has attracted a loyal following, and it will give fuel to its critics who have mocked the restaurant’s high-calorie menu in the Chubby Chipotle campaign.

Then there’s GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, who has drawn rebukes from his Republican rivals and even more investigative intensity in the past week. Carson found himself under the microscope after complaining about excessive scrutiny following press reports that questioned the accuracy of his statements about a scholarship to West Point and a violent past as a teenager.

Looking overseas, the initial response by Egyptian and Russian officials to the downed Metrojet passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula in retrospect looks like an effort to avoid rocking the tourist boat. While the plea not to rush to judgment made sense, the quick dismissal of a terrorist act contradicted their own words. It took action by British Prime Minister David Cameron – who suspended British carrier flights to Sharm el-Sheikh – to bring to light the very real prospect of a bomb that brought down the plane. Now, the Russian government has suspended flights as it tries to find a way to bring home more than 25,000 Russian tourists.

In this situation, the Russians are displaying the same head-in-the-sand reaction to a damaging international report about state-sponsored doping by the country's track and field athletes.

If you are Russia, maybe you don't care what other people think. But for most of us, our reputation is our most valuable asset. Preserving that reputation in a crisis situation is a priority.

While no two situations are alike, there are universal crisis response fundamentals that apply to all of these situations. Chief among them is responding proactively by acknowledging the crisis and its repercussions, accepting responsibility and taking demonstrable action to address the cause of the crisis.

If Wolfe had acknowledged and denounced the inexcusable racial incidents that occurred on the University of Missouri campus, he would have placed himself on the same side as those who were deeply offended. In light of the racial tensions sparked by events in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, it is incredible that Wolfe could be so tone deaf.

Wolfe's resignation – spurred in part by the Missouri football team refusing to play this weekend – belatedly reflected empathy for the situation when he urged his departure to be the start of a healing process. Better late than never, but a proactive crisis response is always best.

Big-Minded Vs. Small-Minded

Big-minded and small-minded people address problems in very different ways. 

Big-minded and small-minded people address problems in very different ways. 

Solving a problem is greatly aided by a big-minded approach instead of a small-minded one. Small minds tend to focus on obstacles to overcome. Big minds see opportunities that leap over obstacles.

Small-minded people go with what they know. Big-minded people survey a wider universe to find a smart idea.

To be sure, all of us can be big-minded and small-minded in different circumstances. But the lubrication that enables someone to move beyond a constricted view is curiosity.

I made this point while giving an informational interview to a soon-to-graduate marketing major from Portland State University. She asked simply how my firm, which is celebrating its 25th year in business, has adapted.

After noting we never created a brochure and that we start every client pitch from scratch, I said our fundamental adaptation was believing we had a lot to learn. We try to make Big-Mindness a business operating principle.

When my 21-year-old captive audience asked how to learn Big-Mindedness, my answer is to let experience be your teacher. Read outside your comfort zone. Volunteer in community organizations to see other people in their space. Work on a political campaign to listen to people and see the evolution of viewpoints. Travel. And pay attention to what's happening.

Even the seemingly most remote news events can be eye-opening. The two examples I gave my interviewee were the window into the expanding universe provided by the Hubble telescope and the experimentation of researches to verify the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and chickens.

Seeing the vast expanse of what we call outer space should open our minds to life somewhere else beside earth. A similar discovery many years ago that showed the earth revolves around the sun opened new vistas for small-mindedness. It allowed science to shed light on the world without the shadow of dogma.

The seemingly pointless research project that indicates chickens can regress and have something more like a prehistoric snout instead of a beak offers a cellular-level notion of how life functions and evolves. We aren't destined to be what we are; we have adapted to become what we are.

The practical value of such knowledge is that the universe of answers is wider than our own solar system of information and that we can effect change if we understand what factors account for change. Both have broad utility in the field of marketing, which at its core is a quest to find what works.

Problems may seem insoluble. And, if you only consider the options in your small mind, they may be. But when your thoughts to cross over to the big mind, more options materialize. The path to success may not be clear, but it certainly isn't closed.