Panera’s missed opportunity offers crisis response lessons

The company cut ties with an employee whose viral TikTok video showed its frozen pasta being warmed in hot water before being served. Here’s how it could have seized a chance to shine.

This article originally ran in 2019 and is part of our annual countdown of the most-viewed stories from PR Daily.

When a Panera Bread employee shot to internet fame for a video that showed frozen macaroni servings being warmed in a hot water bath, her boss took action.

The company sent out spokeswoman Jessica Hesselschwerdt to explain its food preparation practices—and it cut ties with the employee.

USA Today reported:

On Friday, the poster confirmed on Twitter that “she lost (her) job for this video.” She explained in another follow-up TikTok video that “I was told we had to part ways” due to the original clip going viral beyond any measure.

Hesselschwerdt did not comment on whether the woman was fired by the company, stating that Panera does “not discuss personnel matters.”

Hesselschwerdt tried to position the food prep techniques as a part of Panera’s commitment to excellence and avoiding preservatives.

USA Today continued:

“We want to make sure that if you’re in Massachusetts or California or in any one of our 2,100 locations that you get that same awesome experience,” she told USA TODAY. “This is how we are efficient and how we make it consistent. We want that experience to be great, and that’s the best way to do it.”

While some might be grossed out by the image of their macaroni being warmed in plastic packets in a hot water bath, others were ready to defend Panera for using industry-standard practices—and for sacking the worker.

The Takeout wrote:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. I mean, do you really want your macaroni and cheese to be made by an hourly employee who thinks “exposing” their employer on Tik Tok is a good idea?

So, Panera is probably updating its social media policy, reeducating employees on social media etiquette. It might even launch a campaign in a few months about all its food practices that should delight connoisseurs.

However, this viral moment is a missed opportunity for Panera, especially with its decision to dismiss the employee.

Consider: The headlines across the country focus on an hourly worker who lost her job, a much more human figure than a corporate restaurant chain. The video is getting even more play, and the story is lingering rather than disappearing.

And then there’s Panera’s message, delivered by a spokeswoman in traditional media outlets. Does that begin to compete with the worker’s bouncy, humorous video, which racked up viral viewership online? Nope, that hot water bath full of bobbing packets of premade macaroni servings won’t go away anytime soon.

TikTok offers a unique problem for brand managers responding to viral trends. The platform encourages behavior that can cross the line: Users look for a quick hit, as a risky, perhaps illegal challenge—or maybe they go for a “gotcha” moment.

Humiliating your employer might seem like an exciting option, especially for young workers who are more devoted to their social media followings than their hourly gig in food service.

So, how can a Panera prevent these kinds of stories—and better respond to negative episodes?

It starts by getting your organization on popular platforms. If you don’t understand the platform, you can’t respond in a commensurate and effective way. If you don’t have a TikTok channel, or staffers who understand the content format, it might be time to hire someone.

In Panera’s case, why not lean in on the TikTok format? Engage the young social media user, invite her to visit a test kitchen, share some content about how she loves the company. It’s not that farfetched, given her apparent remorse when her first post took off.

There was an opportunity to engage the wider internet, to be part of the inside joke and share a message about Panera’s values, not to mention its support for young employees.

Giving a backstage look at your company isn’t a new tactic, and it’s worked surprisingly well for some unlikely players. In 2014, McDonald’s launched a program to report about the real ingredients in its food. The bit of brand journalism led to an app and a video series.

If you use standard and safe restaurant techniques, try a little brand journalism to help consumers understand why.

For PR pros, it has become essential to become your own storyteller and form an in-house media outlet. A statement to reporters just won’t get the airtime it once did, and as consumers jettison old media formats for social media and internet entertainment, companies will have to get better at meeting their customers where they are.

Here’s a list of potential video series Panera could run on TikTok to bolster its dinged reputation:

  • Behind the scenes at its test kitchen: What’s the good stuff going into the mac and cheese?
  • Workers who have fun: How are employees creating unique, enticing experiences for customers?
  • From the source: Where do Panera’s food stuffs come from? Show the farms and facilities at work.
  • People who love Panera: Hold a contest to get superfans sharing their devotion in their social media feeds.

How would you advise Panera to respond to its mac and cheese quandary, PR Daily readers?

This article originally appeared on PR Daily in 2019.


2 Responses to “Panera’s missed opportunity offers crisis response lessons”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    This is a classic “Big Corporation vs. A Little Guy” situation and each of us should be ready because at first what activists want sounds so fair.

    Politicians who want our votes say we should “break up” big corporations to benefit those of us who are less fortunate. Doesn’t it sound logical that the big guys can afford it and the rest of us need it?

    But questions come to mind.

    — Large companies supply medicines that save our lives, so could breaking up those companies be bad for us?

    — Large companies provide good jobs for millions of people who need the money to live on so should we favor not breaking up those companies?

    — Large companies make weapons that protect us, and pay billions in dividends on stocks in our pension funds, and support our universities and hospitals, so do we benefit if these large companies are broken up?

    — If it’s fair as it sounds that people who have more should help people who have less, and if millions of Americans don’t have enough to eat and drink, should the top half in income pay more taxes to benefit the bottom half?

    — Every day half a million Americans sleep on the streets or in old cars, and millions of others including innocent children are jammed into overcrowded rooms, so should Americans with more than three bedrooms have to take in government-approved poor people who need better housing than they have?

    — In Latin America and Africa millions of people suffer from gangs that steal and rape so should we let at least an additional million immigrants a year into the U.S.?

    — There is a huge income gap in the world between those who have the most and those who have the least, so would a 10%-a-year tax on assets of most Americans be fair to help the needy to have more?

    It’s not just Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Pfizer that have more assets than they need, so perhaps do most of us. So are the proposals of politicians sensible to break up the over-successful? Do companies that keep growing get to be too big and successful and is it fair in our world that Americans should be so rich?

    Olivia says:

    This was a great read! I actually saw the TikTok the Panera worker posted as I use TikTok all the time! I didn’t know she was fired because of it!
    I disagree with Panera’s crisis communication. Yes, they fired her, but they sent out messages on traditional media sites and tried to defend how their Mac and Cheese was made. They definitely missed an opportunity to utilize TikTok to their advantage and turn the situation into a positive.
    I think they needed to understand TikTok and the app in general to be able to effectively respond to the video one of their employees put out.
    I agree that they could have used TikTok as a way to show what happens behind the scenes in their kitchen rather than trying to defend one video that went viral about what goes on in their kitchen.

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