Chipotle Mexican Grill has closed 43 restaurants in Washington state and Oregon due to an E. coli outbreak that has affected 22 people since mid-October – but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the food chain’s website which remains void of any messaging on the matter.
Chipotle’s communications director Chris Arnold has given several media interviews, stating that the company’s top priority at this point is working with health department officials on the investigation into the outbreak. The Oregon Health Authority posted an initial statement on Saturday about the crisis.
When contacted by PRWeek, Arnold declined to comment on Chipotle’s communications strategy around the outbreak.
"Right now, our focus is on the issue at hand," he said via email.
Chipotle’s social media pages have also made no mention of the outbreak or restaurant closures.
However, on Monday, the chain’s social media team appeared to be actively monitoring and responding directly to any tweets with concerns or questions about the matter.
@cristinapalumbo We take safety very seriously and you should feel safe eating in our restaurants. -Shane— Chipotle (@ChipotleTweets) November 2, 2015
@ayoooobree We closed some stores in the Pacific NW out of caution and are working with the health department to determine the cause. -Shane— Chipotle (@ChipotleTweets) November 2, 2015
@byerskay No, they are still getting paid. -Rusty— Chipotle (@ChipotleTweets) November 2, 2015
@rmoniquewrites Fear not, this was a temporary situation in the Pacific Northwest only. You'll be just fine. -Joe— Chipotle (@ChipotleTweets) November 2, 2015
On Chipotle’s Facebook page, which has also not been updated with a statement, the social network’s users are leaving angry comments about the issue.
Nick Kalm, founder and president of Reputation Partners, told PRWeek that he is surprised Chipotle is being so close-mouthed about the incident and not following the accepted playbook QSR companies tend to look to in this kind of circumstance.
"Chipotle has a carefully crafted image they are looking to uphold, and having a potential E. coli problem runs quite counter to that," Kalm said. "They are different from everybody else – all of their advertising messaging is talking about how different and healthy they are."
The chain should have a statement on its website, post a press release on the matter, and have a statement on social media, Kalm advised. Messaging, he said, should be focused on reassuring customers that there are no issues at other locations, particularly in states neighboring the areas where the restaurants have been closed.
"Keeping so quiet could harm Chipotle," said Kalm. "They should have a statement on their website even though it does run counter to their wholesome and beautiful-looking food image; this is a serious health issue and people could die or get seriously ill."
The chain’s image has been under attack since September, when Chipotle began fighting back against a lawsuit contending that the chain has been lying to customers about its food being GMO-free. Around the same time, the Center for Consumer Freedom created a "Chubby Chipotle" ad campaign calling the company's executives "fast food hypocrites" for claiming that its menu is GMO-free.