Monday, December 14, 2015

PR wisdom from a CEO named Steve

No, it's not Steve Jobs. 

I'm referring to Steve Ells, Chipotle's CEO, whose company has been having the worst weeks ever. Maybe the worst quarter. Unexplained illnesses linked to Chipotle's fresh-food menu have resulted in more than 120 customers taking sick, and the temporary closing of 44 restaurants in Boston and the Pacific Northwest.

By Aude (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
To his credit -- and at some professional risk -- Ells took to the morning TV news circuit last week, and took full responsibility for these problems. On the TODAY show, the first words out of his mouth? "I'm sorry."

No royal "we're sorry." No PR aphorisms along the lines of,  "We regret..." He took responsibility. And explained in very plain English what the company's doing to sanitize the restaurants and make them safe.

And, even when asked about the impact of the bad news and closings on Chipotle's stock price, Ells stayed on message. He told Matt Lauer: "That's not what we're thinking about now. We're thinking about the safety and quality of our ingredients. (And) to put in place practices that will not enable this to happen again."

No outlandish promises. No placating messages to Chipotle's stockholders. Just plain speaking. A prompt, direct apology. No criticism of Chipotle's suppliers or employees. Just what they're doing to make sure this never happens again.

Hell, I'd work for this guy.

Ells' on-target, take-responsibility candor -- both at the start and finish of the TODAY Show interview -- should be a required viewing for anyone looking for crisis communications strategies. Chipotle's recovery from this issue won't be quick -- and may be costly -- but fast-food contamination history suggests the company will do better than Jack In The Box did in the wake of its foodborne illness crisis.