I recently wrote an article analyzing Chipotle’s crisis communication tactics during an E. coli outbreak that started in November 2015. Writing that article got me thinking about crisis communications in the food and beverage industry as a whole. When something goes wrong with food it is a big deal, and it can really hurt your image. It is hard to convince consumers to keep eating at your restaurant after a food poisoning outbreak or a picture of hair in your food goes viral on the internet. After thinking over this for a while (and shivering at the idea of hair in my food) I decided to compile a list of the initial 5 steps to take as a communications professional when there is a crisis with food or a food business.
1. Address the Problem.
Publicly and Immediately. The first step to communicate a food crisis is to simply admit that something has happened. Give the basic details, be upfront and, most importantly, be transparent. If you address the public but are dishonest, insincere or not transparent you will only make the problem, and your brand image, worse. Make sure you know the ins and outs of the problem and put together a cohesive and comprehensive report and statement. Address the crisis on all platforms: with the media, social media accounts, your website etc. All of your audience needs to know that you understand the problem and that you are facing it head on.
Issue an apology. This should usually come from the CEO/founder of the company or
restaurant and should be released immediately after the crisis occurs. Issuing an apology too late into the crisis can appear as a last ditch effort to save your image rather than a heartfelt
message. Apologizing is absolutely essential. When it comes to a food crisis, it often involves people getting sick. Sickness is a very personal consequence to the affected customers and they demand, and deserve, an apology. Even if the mistake was unintentional, out of your control and not your fault…apologize. Tone is also critical. The apology needs to be sincere and empathetic. If the apology does not seem genuine you will, again, make the problem much worse and make your customers even more angry. It is also important to keep the tone positive and hopeful. Although you are very sorry, you also have confidence in your company’s ability to fix the problem and do better in the future. For more on formal apologies check out these articles by PR Insider and PR Week.
3. Announce How You Are Working to Fix it.
Addressing the problem and apologizing are crucial, but the process doesn’t end there. Simply announcing that you know what’s going on and that you’re sorry does not give your customers peace of mind and won’t fix your brand’s image. You need to create a strategic plan to fix the crisis and then release it to the public in a way that is easy to understand. Tone is again very important. You need your public to know that you are taking the matter seriously and are confident that it will be resolved. Customers want to know that you are actively combatting the problem not just sitting back and watching it unfold. It needs to be easy to understand so that it does not confuse you public. Chipotle did a great job of this by using fun graphics, colors and images to keep their plan approachable and light.
4. Create a Preventative Future Plan.
Even after the crisis has ended, consumers will not trust your brand or image. If you’ve messed up once, what will stop it from happening again? Create a comprehensive plan for how you will prevent the problem from occurring again in the future. This plan needs to be put in place so that the problem doesn’t resurface and to restore your customer’s faith in eating at your business. No one wants to go to a restaurant where they don’t feel safe eating the food.
5. Stay on Top of It.
Crisis communication is a continual process. It does not end the day the crisis ends, it continues until your brand is back on track, and in some ways it is always in the works. Your work is not done after announcing a plan. Show your audience that you are really changing and implementing the plan, rather than just saying it. Post proof of it in your actions and on your social media, website and when speaking to the press. Actually change, and make sure people know that you did. You can have the best plan for the future the world’s ever known, but if it never gets implemented and people don’t see/hear about it, that plan is dead in the water.