Crisis comms in action: Chipotle’s store closing announcement is PR theatrics, but that’s OK

by | Jan 19, 2016 | Crisis Communications, Public Relations

As Chipotle wages its battle with E-coli and salmonella, just about everyone has come out of the woodwork to assess its response to what is a significant brand crisis, and speculate on what it needs to do moving forward to regain customers’ trust.

Someone, somewhere, suggested that Chipotle close all of its stores nationwide for a week or so to essentially wipe the slate clean and show consumers how serious it was about ensuring the safety of its food and cleanliness of its restaurants. To me, and others online, this seemed a little extreme, especially when the vast majority of outlets have had no incidents. Close those stores where people were sickened maybe, but it would do more brand harm than good if consumers drove past suddenly shuttered stores, especially if they didn’t know exactly why they were closed.

Well, Chipotle announced this week they were going to do just that…sort of.

In a daring move, the Tex-Mex chain will close all of its stores for several hours on February 8, to host “a national team meeting to thank our employees for their hard work through this difficult time, discuss some of the food safety changes we are implementing, and answer questions from employees,” according to a company spokesperson.

While I applaud the desire to make sure all employees are fully informed regarding food safety initiatives, changes in protocol and the like, no doubt the topics to be discussed and messages from corporate could be handled on a store-by-store basis, or possibly before or after hours. To close all the stores at once, during business hours, is indeed a bold and gutsy move, but Chipotle needs bold and gutsy right now.

Related: Crises & The Flash Boys Effect: When response speed affects outcome

This a tactic calculated to proclaim “WE TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY!” It is as much about public relations as it is retraining and employee communication. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Jerry Seinfeld. Perception is reality, so if it takes a chain-wide closing to get the media’s attention and send a message to the public that all concerns have been addressed, that everything that can be done to ensure no one else gets sick has been done, then go for it. The lost business to another franchise during that few hours will pay off in more burritos over the long term.

Chipotle has taken its licks throughout this crisis. Several PR flubs, including competing messages from its co-CEOs early on, didn’t help. Almost no company will get everything right when disaster strikes. But Chipotle has done much right too, and this announcement is the latest example. I can’t predict what the future holds for the chain, but consumers have always been willing to forgive brands they like, especially if they see legitimate steps to set matters right, even if those steps are clothed in the garb of public relations.

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