Chipotle Mexican Grill – Navigating a Crisis


david johnsonBy David E. Johnson, CEO, Strategic Vision PR Group

Today’s consumers are savvier than ever before when they select a brand.  Consumers are not just selecting a brand because of price any longer, they are seeking a brand that tells a story and shares their values.  No brand in the fast food industry has represented this more than Chipotle Mexican Grill that boasted ‘food with integrity’.  It was one of the fastest growing fast food chains in recent memory appealing to consumers that ranged from millennials to blue collars.  Wall Street and consumers could not get enough of the chain that touted its fresh and organic ingredients which they call “food with integrity”.

Chipotle in CrisisThen disaster struck.  Then additional illnesses were reported in seven more states.  In December 80 college students in Boston fell ill after eating at Chipotle.  Health officials in Boston said the cause was norovirus and cited the company for two health violations.  On January 6th, the company announced that it had been served with a grand jury subpoena in California related to a FDA and federal attorney investigation.  Sales and stocks at Chipotle have been tumbling since this first happened.  The company has also announced that it was severing ties with its public relations agency, Edelman.

Many are wondering if Chipotle can recover or if consumers will no longer buy into its story.  The answer is the brand will survive and recover but it will takes years to win back consumer loyalty and trust.  And before this crisis is over it can expect more bad days ahead.

The company in its initial crisis did do some good things such as their full-page ads apologizing to customers and pledging to do better.  They also erred in saying they would make their restaurants absolutely safe (there is no possible way to guarantee that and also it begs the question why weren’t they already absolutely fresh) and in explaining what E.coli and norovirus are rather than offering the company’s solution (remember when a crisis hits, the public wants to know how a brand is going to fix it).

The company has to develop a crisis strategy to address investors, employees, consumers, and franchise owners.  So what should they do?

For consumers:

  1. Address the criminal investigation forthrightly as well as what led to the outbreaks at the various locations.
  2. Explain what new safeguards have been put in place to see that this does not happen again and what other things the company is doing to safeguard consumers.
  3. Have the CEO appear on the morning talk shows to speak to consumers and apologize.
  4. Full page ads yet again in major daily newspapers apologizing to consumers and asking for another chance.
  5. Invite the media into restaurants to show them what safeguards are being done to insure safe quality food.
  6. Have a social media policy that corresponds with the traditional media approach.
  7. A strong community relations program to show Chipotle in local communities and as a company that cares.

 About the Author:  David E. Johnson is the CEO of Strategic Vision PR Group, a public relations and branding agency that specializes in crisis communications, branding, and media relations.  Additional information on Johnson and Strategic Vision, LLC may be obtained at

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