The Week in PR

  1. Eagle has Landed: Your brand can do many things correctly in a crisis and it still may end up having weeks like Chipotle experienced, which included a share price falling (down almost 30% over 4 months), predicting lower earnings for Q4, the likelihood of negative same-store sales in Q4 for the first time since going public in ’06, spending much time talking with health officials and monitoring inaccurate media reports. On the up side, PR pros are gaining a smorgasbord of lessons from the burrito maker’s E.coli crisis. Last week was supposed to be a decent one for Chipotle, with brass unveiling a top-flight food-safety program at a Bernstein conference; it wasn’t. A PR lesson Chipotle is grappling with now, senior executives said at the Bernstein conference, involves how to deal with misinformation in the press. Indeed, in preparing this piece PR News was surprised at the number of critical details media outlets and pundits were getting wrong. A few we saw: reports stating the 43 Chipotle outlets in the Pacific NW the brand voluntarily closed in early November and reopened about one week later were still closed; misspelling the surname of the brand’s founder, chairman and co-CEO Steve Ells. A variation on the theme is a press foul that’s a bit more excusable, but no less damaging to Chipotle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announces E.coli cases as they reach it. While the E.coli linked to Chipotle occurred during a window from mid-October to early November, local authorities varied on how quickly they sent info to the CDC. When the CDC announced these incidents on different days, some in the press mistook them for new outbreaks of E.coli. An understandable mistake. In fact, there have been no new outbreaks. We can understand Chipotle’s frustration. Still, at Bernstein, Chipotle chief creative and development officer Mark Crumpacker said the CDC would continue to report cases this way, which he called “unorthodox and unusual.” (Finger pointing is never a good PR move.) He also said the CDC will, at some point, “label the investigation over,” and give “the all clear,” although there’s no timeline and “I would not expect [the CDC] to be in a hurry to do that.” (True, and since you called out the CDC in public, the folks there might really take their time, Mr. Crumpacker.) Later during the presentation, Chipotle confirmed what it hinted at last week (PRN, Dec 7): It will institute tougher procedures for local ingredients and it expects some current suppliers might not make the cut. Speaking of cutting, Chipotle said it’s dicing certain raw ingredients (tomatoes and cilantro were mentioned) in commissaries as a food-safety procedure. Once cut, the foods are sanitized, sealed and sent to its restaurants. “We can’t test every tomato,” Ells said transparently at Bernstein, denying that would alter the taste of Chipotle’s food, although prices might rise to cover the new processes, the brand’s CFO Jack Hartung admitted. Once the E.coli crisis is over the company plans include full-page newspaper ads welcoming back customers and detailing food safety procedures. – Now for the news that monopolized Chipotle coverage: Boston College (BC) said some 100 students complaining of G.I. problems, including eight members of its men’s basketball team, the Eagles, ate at a nearby Chipotle two weekends ago. Chipotle closed it Monday; students were tested for E.coli and norovirus, BC said. As we went to press, test results were pending. Still, a noted online sports information service Monday quoted “a basketball coach” confirming the stricken athletes had contracted E.coli. (How did the coach know?) And Chipotle’s Crumpacker told Bernstein the students did not have E.coli. (How did he know?) Separately, a practiced communicator, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold, told media the day of the Bernstein event the Boston incident “looks likely that it is a norovirus...though nothing has been confirmed at this time.” (Whew.) And Chipotle’s debut at Bernstein of plans to be the industry leader in food safety? It received scant press. Instead, coverage mostly was sick BC students and falling share prices. Incidentally, Chipotle said monitoring since Nov. 1 shows 57% of its customer base is aware of the E.coli issue. As we said, plenty of lessons.
  2. A bigger bird

    Platforms: In what seems a big win for PR pros, Twitter said 500 million logged-out users now will see the advertiser-purchased tweets known as Promoted Tweets. Those 500 million lack Twitter accounts but see tweets through Google and other apps. Now the total Twitter audience will see communicators’ Promoted Tweets. Twitter has 320 million active monthly users.

  3. Walmart U.S. CMO Stephen Quinn

    People: G&S Business Communications named Peter Donnelly VP, creative. -- Walmart U.S. CMO since 2007 Stephen Quinn will leave Jan. 31. Former Target CMO Michael Francis will step in to consult and perhaps work with Francis’ successor.-- General Mills named Mary Lynn Carver CCO/VP of global corporate communications. She succeeds the retired Tom Forsythe. Walmart U.S. CMO Stephen QuinnA bigger bird

This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.