Putting Out a Fire with Crisis Communications

Chipotle Mexican Grill is a living, breathing example that success is not final and failure is not fatal. In November 2015, almost 50 cases of food poisoning were linked to Chipotle locations in six states. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced there would be an investigation of an E. coli outbreak in the chain. Chipotle’s stock plummeted 12 percent.  

When Taylor Swift speaks, even the most powerful companies in the world have to listen. In the summer of 2015, Swift wrote a passionate letter to her thousands of Tumblr followers on how appalled she was that Apple was not going to pay royalties during a three-month free trial of its new music streaming service. Her letter immediately went viral.

Because of these two scenarios, Chipotle and Apple had to pull out their crisis communications plans. While organizations hope never to encounter a crisis, every institution is vulnerable to unforeseen emergencies and negative publicity and must have a plan in place.

So what exactly is crisis communications and how do you use it to fight a bad situation?  

I decided to research the methods public relations experts use and suggest when it comes to crisis communications, and I found crisis comms can have many interpretations. According to SHIFT Communications, the fundamental definition is: “You’re trying to mitigate damage to your company’s reputation by third-party sources.”

Responding to the Alarm and Extinguishing the Fire

A great analogy to understand crisis communications is to know the components of a fire. A fire is powered by fuel, heat that gives it energy and a catalyst such as oxygen that gives it speed. In a crisis communications situation, your organization is on fire. What led you to this crisis is the fuel, the public opinion is giving it heat and energy, and your speed of reaction to it is the catalyst. As in a fire, take away one of the three components and it will burn out.  

When a situation breaks, your immediate response should be to get the correct information out to your audience. By immediately denying a fire its fuel, you can prevent the public from filling in the gaps of information with speculation and rumors. As soon as the first case of E. coli was linked to Chipotle, the chain restaurant became transparent in how it would improve the safety of its food. It issued statements to the media and voluntarily closed restaurants, and it was honest on how much its sales had dropped.

To deny the fire its oxygen, your crisis communications plan should be centered around a speedy response. To stay ahead of the news cycle and to control your crisis to just a flame, speed is critical. Just hours after Swift’s letter was posted on Tumblr, Apple announced it would be paying artists for their music during the free trial period.

Chipotle and Apple are too well-known ever to resolve a crisis communications situation before the public is aware it’s happening. But they can remove heat from the fire by taking full ownership of the situation. By being in front of the crisis and outlining what is being implemented to make sure the situation never happens again, they can bring more people to their side.
As in a real fire, it might take time to burn out and it might leave damage. But organizations in a crisis communications situation should find relief in this: If a restaurant that preaches it uses only healthy ingredients can overcome a food poisoning outbreak and if a music streaming service can bounce back from being publicly shamed by a world-famous pop star, almost anything is possible.


Sophia Fox || Harrisburg Public Relations and Communications Intern



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