Burritos and Tacos and E. coli, Oh my!

My beloved Chipotle is slowly progressing through an intense Public Relations crisis and has been for months. Over the unraveling of events, Chipotle and the media have unveiled many details regarding the situation; potentially good and bad (mostly bad).

Le’s cover the basics of this issue first— before we get into the heat of it.

The beginning of October 2015 marked many reports of illness (E. Coli and Norovirus) derived from food served at Chipotle restaurants in Oregon and Washington (Madhani, 2015). Upon the initial illness reports, many followed, causing Chipotle to close locations to get a grip on their “food safety.” Overall, residents from nine states were affected (Marler, 2016).

I would like to assume most major food chains have a PR crisis plan up their sleeve in case something such as this were to happen. In the proactive stage, Chipotle kept scanning social media to address any minor issues— illnesses and unsatisfied customers offering reassurance and apologies. This made leeway for the PR professionals to get a grip on their next potential move. Social media, especially Twitter is the main asset to these professionals when addressing a pre-crisis. As mentioned by Schultz, Utz, & Görtz (2011):

“Regarding the technological potential it can be stated that blogs and twitter fit better to the normative ideal of two-way communication within public relations than do classic media or simple websites” (p. 22). These climates of social media allow users to easily engage in the top news that is circulating the internet— and encourages commenting, and retweeting with ease (Schultz et al., 2011).

After scanning social media to target any issues they move on to the next step, the proactive stage.

At this point illness is spreading across the country and reports are being broadcasted on media, leaving families in panic. In this case, they start to throw together a crisis management plan targeting potential solutions and steps to create a safe environment for employees, and overall, customers. I think Chipotle did the right thing by addressing the situation and closing the stores that were targeted. Sure, all at once seemed a bit drastic, but having health code on the line is not funny business. Especially when you have stakeholders keeping a close eye on the company’s every move.

With a crisis plan in hand, Chipotle moves to the reactive stage. The PR professionals start crisis communication by releasing public apologies that were published in magazines and newspapers. Co-CEO of Chipotle made an appearance on the Today show extending his amends to the public— encouraging many customers that Chipotle will bounce back and keep serving after several health code changes in the stores (Stump, 2015).

Next, we move into recovery.

Chipotle publically released a “Five Step Plan” to help their restaurants recover and establish new food safety guidelines (Galarza, 2016). New safety protocol, which requires employees to boil many vegetables before served, and track all ingredients to their source to pinpoint new disease breakouts (Galarza, 2016). Implementing third-party inspectors, thorough audits performed by management, a new promotion campaign (worth $50 Million), continued expansion, and careful investment in staff and management (Galarza, 2016).

You get ‘em Chipotle!

According to USA TODAY, Chipotle’s fourth-quarter income dropped by 44% due to public health scares (Yu, 2016). In a case as serious as this, I think Chipotle did a great job thinking about their customers and closing all hazardous stores to progress with an extensive recovery/crisis management plan. There was a lot on the line, but re-branding and establishing a new campaign has the ability to gain trust with the consumers again, and hopefully, Chipotle remains one of the safest places to eat. 




Galarza, D. (2016, February 02). Chipotle’s Recovery Plan, Explained in Five Easy Steps. Retrieved February 07, 2016, from http://www.eater.com/2016/2/2/10900204/chipotle-turnaround-sales-down

Madhani, A. (2015, November 11). Chipotle to reopen restaurants shuttered in E. coli outbreak in northwest. Retrieved February 7, 2016, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/11/10/chipotle-reopens-ecol-restaurants-oregon-washington/75505514/

Marler, B. (2016, January 31). Chipotle E. coli almost over, but not all its problems. Retrieved February 07, 2016, from http://www.foodpoisonjournal.com/foodborne-illness-outbreaks/chipotle-e-coli-almost-over-but-not-all-its-problems/#.Vrf_SFgrK01

Schultz, F., Utz, S., & Göritz, A. (2011). Is the medium the message? perceptions of and reactions to crisis communication via twitter, blogs and traditional media. Public Relations Review, 37(1), 20-27. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2010.12.001

Stump, S. (2015, December 10). Chipotle CEO after health scares: ‘This will be the safest place to eat’ Retrieved February 07, 2016, from http://www.today.com/news/chipotle-ceo-speaks-out-after-health-scares-will-be-safest-t60746

Yu, R. (2016, February 02). Chipotle Q4 income falls 44% on health scares. Retrieved February 07, 2016, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2016/02/02/chipotle-q4-income-falls-44-health-scares-drive-same-store-sales-down-146/79711066/