Last month, beleaguered burrito chain Chipotle found itself at the center of a public-relations nightmare that had nothing to do with E. coli. A video that went viral on Twitter captured a manager at a St. Paul, Minnesota, store asking a group of black men to pay for their meal in advance, while a white female customer was not asked for “proof of income” before she ordered. In follow-up tweets, the customer wrote that he had been racially profiled: “So when a WHITE woman walks in you change your policy of ‘show us income before you get served’????? So @Chipotle gonna sit here and tell me I can’t eat because they think I look like someone that stole from them before??” The chain almost immediately announced it was firing the manager, announcing the “restaurant [staff] is being retrained to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
It’s a sequence of events that’s become all too familiar in recent memory: Chain restaurant employee does something inappropriate or offensive; said act goes viral, thanks to a tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram that often includes video footage; social-media users take the company to task in droves, often pledging a boycott; restaurant responds by firing the offending staffer. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But just days later, Chipotle issued a public mea culpa, saying that it was offering the St. Paul manager her job back in light of new information: The complainant, who claimed the manager had misidentified him as a former dine-and-dasher, had in fact specifically mentioned dine-and-dashing at Chipotle in prior social media posts. Although Chipotle told the Pioneer Press that it was aware of those previous tweets when it first fired the manager, it reviewed the incident further and noted, “Our policy is to treat our customers and employees fairly and with respect at all times and under any circumstances.”
Not surprisingly, the backtracking led to another cycle of social media controversy, keeping the incident in the news for another several days as outlets reported on Chipotle’s second thoughts, the rescinding of its decision, and the manager speaking out publicly.
Chipotle’s attempt to swiftly resolve a potential public-relations disaster ended up extending the story’s life cycle. But the initial outcry helped force its hand: Crisis PR expert Eden Gillott says that since she started in the field a decade ago, “people’s expectations have gotten a lot higher” in terms of the speed they expect companies to respond to public incidents.
“Social media and the ability of anyone to be a journalist and post anything in real time and make it accessible to the entire world has changed everything when it comes to customer service and crisis management,” says Erik Deutsch, a media strategist at LA-based ExcelPR Group. “If someone was mistreated in a store 15 years ago they might make a scene in the store and tell their friends about it and that would be it. Now they pull out a phone and video it and post it online, and it can become a sensation.”
So what’s the best way for high-profile brands like Chipotle to assuage the public’s anger, fulfill its obligation to treat its employees fairly, and stave off more negative online attention until it can thoroughly investigate incidents? It’s a question that’s arisen numerous times in recent months: Last month at a McDonald’s near Minneapolis, a white man allegedly flashed a gun at a group of Muslim teens after he made a racist remark, spurring a verbal altercation. (He was later arrested under probable cause for second-degree assault.) A video posted to Twitter by one of the teens has been viewed nearly 2.2 million times — and the fast-food giant faced harsh online criticism for the action of its employees, one of whom was captured on camera yelling at the teens to leave the restaurant despite having just been threatened with a firearm.
Shortly after the incident went viral, McDonald’s corporate spokesperson provided a statement from the franchisee stating, “Nothing is more important than the safety and security of our customers and employees. We take this matter seriously and are working with local law enforcement while we investigate the situation.” Meanwhile, Twitter users, including some prominent Muslim activists, continued to demand answers from the company on how it intended to address the actions of its staff. Reached for comment on December 5, McDonald’s confirmed that the employee featured in the video was no longer employed by the company — though a spokesperson didn’t reply when asked whether that was the sole decision of the franchisee, or if that decision was handed down or influenced by corporate.
Not surprisingly, brands are reluctant to reveal what protocols, if any, they might have in place when it comes to investigating these viral incidents. Neither McDonald’s nor Chipotle responded to a request for information about internal processes for handling such crises.
In the Chipotle instance, acting too hastily put the brand in an embarrassing situation. But according to Gillott, the mistake that most brands tend to make when a viral crisis erupts is waiting too long to properly address it. “The really, really big companies are much more responsive and understand that it is important to bring [a crisis PR expert] in sooner rather than later,” Gillott says. (While she can’t disclose the names of her previous clients due to confidentiality agreements, Gillott says she’s worked with “brands so iconic you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed eating their food, drinking their beverages, or watching their commercials.”)
“In the vacuum of saying nothing, rumors are going to fill the void,” Gillott says. “So you don’t want to say nothing, but there are things that you can say that don’t necessarily give people more facts, but at least convey that you’re working on it — ‘We’re looking into this’ or ‘The investigation is ongoing.’ So it’s letting the audience know that you care and that you are taking steps in the right direction.”
Once her firm receives an initial call from a company in crisis mode, they immediately set forth to gather all the facts, figure out what kind of resolution the company hopes to achieve, and compose an appropriate statement for the media and/or public. According to Gillott, when brands issue a public statement in the midst of or following a crisis, they should look to address three things: “apologizing or showing remorse or empathy, talking about the things that they’re going to be doing to fix it, and then focusing on the future.”
As an example of a viral brand crisis that was handled well, Gillott points to a high-profile April incident in which two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks after a manager called the police because they hadn’t purchased anything. While Starbucks was quick to respond, issuing a public apology within about 48 hours, the company took its time to thoroughly investigate the matter, reviewing store policies and speaking with staff, management, Philadelphia police, and the men who were unfairly arrested before taking any significant action. It wasn’t until nearly a week later that then-executive chairman Howard Schultz confirmed on a CBS This Morning appearance that the manager who called police was no longer with the company.
A subsequent statement from CEO Kevin Johnson denounced the arrests as “reprehensible” and detailed measures Starbucks would take to ensure a similar situation wouldn’t occur in the future, including working with community leaders to refine its policies and ultimately conducting implicit bias training for thousands of employees across the U.S.
“Starbucks did a fairly good job handling that because they were fast to respond and it was a very polished message,” says Gillott. “A lot of companies don’t have the resources to do what Starbucks did, and a lot of people commended Starbucks for going above and beyond. But at the end of the day, it is a business decision. They realize that if they do good now, it will pay off later in the future.”
Put plainly, while Starbucks’ executives may very well want to “do the right thing” because they believe in equality and fairness, brands’ actions ultimately come down to what will most benefit the company and its shareholders (see also: Nike’s controversial selection of Colin Kaepernick for an ad campaign, which spurred boycotts from conservatives but ultimately gave it a significant sales boost).
And the new social-media age makes figuring that strategy out — and quickly — even more crucial. “In an age where everyone has a TV studio in their pocket, everyone who works in customer service is a spokesperson for the company,” says Deutsch. “There are no secrets, just things that haven’t been found out yet... every customer is a potential journalist and can capture them on camera, and there are ways to handle those kinds of situations that are better than others.”