The man who saved Jack in the Box's brand after its E. coli crisis has advice for Chipotle

Rick Sittig, who brought Jack in the Box back from the point of no return after its deadly E. coli crisis 20 years ago, explains what he would do if he was handling comms responding to Chipotle's outbreak.

Rick Sittig
Rick Sittig

Chipotle Mexican Grill’s E. coli outbreak has been making headlines since October. However, the chain’s crisis looks like small potatoes compared with the dilemma Jack in the Box faced in 1993, when E. coli linked to its restaurants infected hundreds of people, killed four children, and left 178 other victims with permanent injuries including kidney and brain damage.

A campaign developed by Secret Weapon Marketing founder and creative director Rick Sittig helped to bring Jack in the Box back from the point of no return. After two decades working together, the companies parted ways this summer. Jack in the Box now works with David&Goliath.

Sittig chatted with PRWeek about what he would do if he was overseeing marketing and communications for Chipotle as it tries to undo reputational and financial damage from its own E. coli crisis.

Do you think Chipotle will come out of this crisis relatively unscathed?
I do. Just like Taco Bell did; just like Jack in the Box did. And Jack in the Box started from a much worse place. They didn’t have the reputation for high-quality food. That is a much deeper hole to climb out of. Chipotle enjoys a much better relationship with their customers and has a reputation for higher-quality food. And while they might have made some people sick, they didn’t kill anyone. 

Any other differences between the E. coli crisis at Chipotle and Jack in the Box that jump out at you?
Jack in the Box advertised a lot on TV and radio. So every time Jack in the Box went on air, it would be a reminder of their food and what had happened. And so one of the first things Jack in the Box had to do was pull its ads off the air.

Chipotle barely advertises at all. So it is not reminding people or conjuring up images of itself constantly, so it does not have to pull its comms off the air.

What about commonalities between the chains?
One of the things in common is that both Chipotle and Jack in the Box have an operational problem, which is finding the source of this and fixing it, and an image problem. So operationally, if I was Chipotle, I would do what Jack in the Box did, which is go out and hire the preeminent expert in food safety, either full time or as a consultant. Jack in the Box hired Dr. Dave Theno, who worked for NASA.

[Chipotle has retained two preeminent food safety consulting firms, including Seattle-based IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group.]

That gave people confidence that a person other than someone at Jack in the Box with a lot of expertise was on the case. I would hire someone with that kind of credential to be brought in, and work the PR angle of that like crazy.

How would you rate Chipotle’s handling of the outbreak so far?
As a customer of Chipotle and as a heavy consumer of advertising and comms, it has been very under-the-radar, and I do not think that is a bad thing.

The cases keep popping up. Anytime they release a message like, "We are working on it, we have it fixed, we have it contained," if that is followed by another case, it just makes them look worse and they lose credibility. Those messages are intended to calm people and regain their trust, but it has the opposite effect when days later they have to report more hospitalizations or more illnesses. They are wise to not say they have it solved. They should show the commitment, but not claim victory.

So you think Chipotle should largely remain quiet on the comms front about this?
I do not think every American is following this story. So I would let time and the news cycle take its course. Unfortunately, another plane is going to go down, there is going to be a terror attack, we have a presidential election coming up. So seven more people hospitalized in Cincinnati is just not going to make it to the evening news, compared with the other things. The proof of that is that Taco Bell had an E. coli outbreak [in 2006], and that has been completely forgotten today. I think that time will take its course.

I do, however, think Chipotle needs to address Wall Street first and foremost.

As the chain’s shares tumble, what do you think it should be doing in terms of investor relations?
They are getting hammered by Wall Street. Wall Street is nervous this can’t be controlled and there will be continued outbreaks. They want to know when it is going to stop. So Chipotle needs to send a message that they have someone on the case and this is their number one priority. Obviously, whoever they used to have in charge of [food safety] was not enough to get the job done. So that is why I would recommend for both practical and symbolic reasons, they go outside of the company and bring in someone with an incredibly high credential to put in charge of food safety.

What are some lessons you learned from the Jack in the Box crisis that you would pass onto Chipotle?
The key from Jack in the Box is that they didn’t just communicate; they went out and hired the preeminent food-safety expert in the country. And to this day, their food-safety standards are more stringent than anyone else in the industry. You can’t just use PR or a heartfelt message. [Chipotle needs] to change its procedures.

This is probably also going to cost some money, because they are going to need to ask their suppliers to take more stringent measures in screening their food. It is more expensive to be pickier.

Social media and digital journalism wasn’t around when Jack in the Box’s own E. coli outbreak struck 20 years ago. Is it more difficult to handle a situation like this today?
Yes. Back in 1994, we were able to control the message because there was only one way. We could control how Jack in the Box was depicted because we were making the commercials and we showed how the food was depicted. No one was creating their own memes or mash-ups, and nothing was going viral. So all the messaging came from the company. That was to the company’s advantage.

How long do you think Chipotle will need to keep on the comms offensive once the crisis ends?
It’ll be over 60 days after the last illness is reported. But of course, if someone dies, it will go to a whole new level.

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