How Chipotle Prepared for a PR Crisis

chipotle public relations

You never know when you might find yourself dealing with a PR crisis. In those moments, when every word of every message is being dissected on social media and cut up for headlines, that is not the time to be building up goodwill for your brand. That needs to happen long before the bad news hits… otherwise you may never dig out.

A great example of a company that was well-prepared for a PR disaster is Chipotle. The “fast casual” dining establishment hit the scene and made a big splash, enticing legions of customers with quality food, quick, and selections that would keep the whole family happy. Soon, those customers were loyal fans. But that didn’t happen by accident. The restaurant work hard and smart to help those consumers make the transition from casual diners to hardcore fans.

Initially, the company appealed to the diners’ desire for better-sourced food. The campaign “Back to the Start” was, at least according to Chipotle chief marketing officer Mark Crumpacker, never really meant to be an advertisement. It was a two-minute spot that debuted during the Grammys in 2012. The video, played over part of the Coldplay hit, “The Scientist” brought diners “back to the start” of where their food originated. The spot focused on a farmer who gives up his massive industrial farm to use more “sustainable and humane” farming practices. During the spot, Chipotle asked viewers to download the song to make a donation to the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation.

So, in two minutes, Chipotle not only reinforced their company commitment to more humanely sourced food, they invited their loyal customers to contribute to a cause they deeply believed in, as partners with the restaurant. So, now they weren’t just choosing tacos or burritos for lunch, they were making a difference in how America eats.

Fans reacted so strongly, the video ended up in movie theaters and on YouTube, where it quickly racked up millions of views. Suddenly, Chipotle was not just a brand standing up for something they believed in. They were enlisting their customers to become part of a movement working to change the way things are being done in their industry. Slowly, they began seeing progress.

Then… the PR crisis. E Coli and salmonella were making customers sick in several cities. They blamed Chipotle. The restaurant rushed to its own defense… Heads rolled at the top of the company as the restaurant promised to improve safety protocols and in-store experiences for diners. Sales dropped by 30 percent, but the loyal customer base kept coming back. After all, they weren’t just getting tacos, they were making a difference together. They were willing to give the company they were connected to another chance, and that means Chipotle will move ahead with plans to open nearly 200 more stores in the following year. 

Ronn Torossian is the CEO and Founder of NYC headquarted 5W Public Relations.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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