They say social media is a place of sharing.
At least two public relations companies have offered to provide crisis communications expertise to Chipotle. On Wednesday, news broke that the chain’s Simi Valley, California, restaurant is being investigated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the state health department. The restaurant was cited for pest control, sanitation and maintenance violations last summer. About 230 people who dined at the establishment developed norovirus, a nasty stomach bug that causes vomiting, diarrhea and other gastric distress.
Can crisis communicators help the struggling chain get through the mess and recover? It doesn’t hurt to ask:
In the past few months, Chipotle executives and spokesman Chris Arnold have tried to quell concerns about food handling and safety. Numerous states have dealt with norovirus and E.coli outbreaks, which shuttered restaurants and caused company stock prices to tumble.
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The subpoena brings a new twist to crisis PR, because Arnold and his team—along with federal investigators—are not allowed to comment on ongoing legal cases.
The silence, though, has been filled with chatter and lots of snarky comments on social media from the public. Many wonder whether the once golden child of Mexican fast food can bounce back:
Food safety crimes and crisis PR
To date, the company’s attempt to rehabilitate its image has included full-page ads apologizing to customers in dozens of newspapers nationwide. Chipotle has vowed changes to step up food safety at its restaurants, a prominent theme on its website these past few months. Norovirus is the most common cause of foodborne illnesses in the U.S., with more than 21 million cases reported annually.
There may be more opportunities for crisis PR and reputation management in 2016. Gizmodo reports the Chipotle probe is “part of a trend towards investigating food safety crimes as, well, crimes.”
The Department of Justice is scrutinizing ice cream company Blue Bell for a listeria outbreak, and a peanut butter company executive who knowingly shipped tainted jars was sentenced to 28 years in prison, according to Gizmodo.
“These could signify a real change in how we deal with food safety and its violations,” said reporter Ria Misra.