From Small to Large Brands, How to Handle a PR Crisis

Once the darling of fast casual for its efficient format and Food With Integrity branding, Chipotle Mexican Grill has been in quite the firestorm as of late.

“Chipotle, of course, is taking some of the biggest hits they’ve taken in their history as a brand,” says Paul Barron, Foodable founder, CEO and author of “The Chipotle Effect.” In this “On Foodable Weekly” episode, Barron is joined by Hunter Frederick, president at Frederick & Associates, a crisis management and public relations firm whose clients include non-profits, celebrities, and entertainment companies.

Frederick offers up actionable tips for both small and large brands on how to control PR and crisis management when put into a compromising situation:

1. Know your priorities and communicate them transparently.

“When you deal with consumer-related things like food or any product that a consumer is using, the important thing you have to remember is safety,” says Frederick. “If there’s something that’s happened that’s causing illness, like the Chipotle incident, or death even, what’s very important is that you kind of remember that that’s your top priority.”

But once a brand puts themselves out there and transparently communicates with the public about what’s going on, what they know, and how the crisis can be prevented from happening in the future — all steps that Frederick says is crucial — how can a brand truly recover?

2. Communicate frequently.

According to Frederick, constant communication is key. “Chipotle has really taken advantage of this,” he says. “They have almost a separate ‘newsroom’ on their website for this scandal.”

The Chipotle website’s newsroom updates have included information on additional stores that have been affected and any new updates on the matter at hand. The brand also has a direct media contact, so if there’s any member of the press that has questions, they can reach out directly to Chipotle’s spokesperson, also known as Chris Arnold, the brand’s communications director and official spokesman.

“I actually had a conversation with Chris Arnold,” says Frederick. “And he told me that was their number one strategy going in — is that they really wanted to be transparent and, if nothing else, over-communicate so that they can reassure the public that they are doing everything they can to prevent this from happening in the future.”

For smaller players like franchisees, Frederick advises to keep in constant internal communication with corporate supervisors to stay ahead, should a crisis management situation arise. It’s also important for franchisees to always be considering how to better message their offerings in their own markets. “A lot of times, operators are only concerned about business and what money’s coming in and, if something happens, they don’t really see ahead, and that’s really where a lot of the trouble comes from.”

One of the worst things an operator or owner can do in the heat of a PR scandal is to be silent. “You never issue a no comment,” says Frederick.

3. Leverage social media as a 24/7 short-form messaging tool.

Social media’s impact on business — especially for small brands that don’t have the same resources as larger ones — is critical. “The thing is, you have to be on it, you have to be out there telling your side of the story,” says Frederick. “If you choose to ignore everything, people are gonna go and tell their own version of the story.”

He encourages brands to use social media channels as a short-form tool to get shorter messages out there and then redirect people to a longer form, like a website. Because social is a constant 24/7 medium, it’s not unusual for Frederick and his team, along with others in the PR crisis communications field, to handle calls at 4 a.m. about an issue since social media is never “off,” so to speak.

“The biggest mistake I often see,” he says, “is that people want to cover stuff up. They want to keep things quiet, they don’t think it’s gonna escalate to the point where it’s gonna be on national news, and then by the time they realize that, it’s lmost always too late.”