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The Top Crises Of 2015: A PR Update

chipotle.crisis.PR.todayshowFor those of us in public relations, 2015 has brought a number of crisis situations for well-known brands and individuals linked to them. I reviewed the most visible brand crises of 2015 from a PR point of view for MENG, but in the week since its posting, there have already been some new developments.

Besides Subway, which struggled after the indictment of its longtime brand spokesperson on sex abuse charges, and Volkswagen, which was rocked by revelations that it cheated on diesel emissions tests, Chipotle was beset by serious incidents of food poisoning in 2015.

The fast-casual pioneer handled the initial E. coli outbreak in the Northwest well, notifying press, closing stores, and pledging to bring on food safety consultants. But after new outbreak of norovirus in Boston, one of two company co-CEOs appeared to point the finger at unusual handling by the CDC as well as media who seek sensational headlines.

Even if this is true, it’s not helpful. Shifting responsibility breaks the cardinal rule of crisis management, which is to focus on those affected by the situation, not the consequences to the company. Chipotle stock tumbled as more restaurants were shuttered.

But late last week the brand seemed to bounce back with a healthier response. Steve Ells, its other co-CEO, appeared on NBC’s “Today” in an interview right out of the crisis playbook. Ells apologized to all affected by the outbreak and pledged a higher commitment to food safety. “The procedures we’re putting in place to eat are so above industry norms that we are going to be the safest place to eat,” he told Matt Lauer Thursday. His demeanor helped; it wasn’t slick or too rehearsed, but rather sincere and concerned.

So, what’s the takeaway here, aside from the benefit of having a ‘spare’ CEO? Clearly, an apology that rings true is an important first step. But in this case, Ells’ mea culpa was backed by a credible commitment to change. Time will tell if Chipotle’s actions live up to his promise, but it seems as if the chain is on a better path in its PR strategy.

There was a new wrinkle in another name on my 2015 crisis PR list. It’s a small one, but Brian Williams may have made a reputation gain this week. The last of the high-profile news anchors was famously exiled to MSNBC this year after he was called out for exaggerating aspects of his experience covering the Iraq war. His change in status seemed like a metaphor for the entire broadcast news business. The cable news sector in particular has seen its share of controversial moments, most recently the cringeworthy live ransacking of the home of the deceased San Bernardino shooters by CNN and MSNBC. (The Atlantic called it “baffling and surreal.”)

But Williams returned to the network anchor chair this week after regular broadcaster Lester Holt was taken ill. It was a temporary gig, but a nice comeback and a reminder that – for almost any brand – public redemption may never be very far away.

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