Be Prepared: 4 Tips That Could Turn Your Business Crisis into Opportunity

Does this title look out of place on a marketing blog? It shouldn’t.

While crisis communication plans are often thought of as the responsibility of PR, when the burrito hits the fan, it’s all hands to crisis communication battle stations. Your marketing team needs to be ready.

In the hyperconnected digital world, your customers are likely going to learn about any disaster through social media – long before you’ve had the chance to write up a formal press release.

This means that your marketing team, from social media coordinator to content manager, will be on the front lines of communication.

As the first line of defense they are perfectly positioned to turn crisis into opportunity.

With hard work, a little luck, and a lot of preparation, you will be able to weather the storm and come out a stronger, better business. While it may not seem like it at the time, crises can strengthen, not destroy, your relationship with your customers.

chipotle crisis round table

Chipotle Transparency Example

Take Chipotle for example. As you may know, everyone’s favorite burrito provider found itself at the unfortunate center of an E. coli outbreak in 2015. More than 50 people in 14 states fell ill from contaminated food and dozens were hospitalized.

How could Chipotle, a brand that prided themselves on their commitment to high quality ingredients, bounce back from that?

The crisis has definitely struck Chipotle a blow. Fourth quarter earnings were down, but business is already starting to turn around. How? Chipotle acted on their crisis communication plan, activated their marketing team, and they’re only just getting started.

In a very wise, highly publicized move, Chipotle voluntarily closed every single one of its restaurants on February 8, passing up on the revenue from the lunchtime rush, to hold a company-wide meeting on food safety.

While many companies would have closed the doors between themselves and the public during a time like this, Chipotle gave customers a window into the conversation. They live tweeted the proceedings, shared photos of the staff, pulled quotes directly from the CEO and even tapped into live streaming video with Periscope.

By including the public in the meeting, Chipotle was able to turn a company-wide, internal meeting into an opportunity to connect with their customers by being more transparent than they necessarily had to be.

Transparency is one highly effective way of rebuilding customer trust.

Sharing Solutions on Social Media

The social activation of the meeting was also an opportunity to talk about their new and improved food safety measures.

Normally, these topics would sound pretty dull: high resolution testing of produce in the farm to blanching procedures in the restaurant. But, in the context of the crisis, these details were suddenly very important for customers to know about.

By lifting the curtain and sharing a detailed, behind the scenes look at how Chipotle delivers ingredients from farm to your plate, they educated customers to feel like they understand and are part of the process.

All of this information now exists as searchable content on their site, too, providing up to date resources and information for anyone still nervous about food safety. In the future, the detailed food safety content will go from a crisis mitigation tool to marketing fodder, emphasizing Chipotle’s commitment to quality, safe food.

chipotle produce blanching image

Oh, and of course this all came with a free burrito. During the restaurant closures on February 8, Chipotle ran a promotion where anyone who texted the words “rain check” would be given a coupon for a freebie. I know plenty of people who took them up on that offer and happily collected their lunch that week.

While time will tell whether or not Chipotle completely recovers from this scandal, they are building a solid foundation from which to rebuild trust and relationships.

4 Steps to Handling Your Own Crisis

If the unthinkable happens to your business, having a crisis communication plan in place for your marketing team can mean the difference between a speedy recovery and public relations meltdown. Here’s where to start:

Step 1: Anticipate

What are the possible points of weakness in your company or industry? Food safety is a common concern in the restaurant world, but maybe your business is more sensitive to quality control issues (à la Lululemon athletics’s see-through yoga pants) or a casual tweet gone bad (accidents and lapses of judgment happen).

Not sure where you’re vulnerable? Do some research into other companies and what has gone wrong for them – and learn from their mistakes!

Step 2: Appoint the Leader(s)

A problem can go from contained to crisis in no time at all, so catching the problem early is important. Empower everyone in your organization to bring concerns to a trusted leader or leaders.

These people should be able to identify the difference between a normal-level customer complaint or concern, something that can be addressed once, and a “Houston, we have a problem” level issue.

Once these leaders identify a potential or fledgling crisis, it’s all hands on deck.

The higher ups in the organization must be informed, of course, but don’t forget to brief marketing and customer support. They are the first point of contact for customers, so they need the most up to date information in order to better support the customer.

Step 3: Get Social

When crisis strikes, where do you turn for information? The Pew Research Center reports that 72% of adults who use the internet are also on Facebook, 25% are on LinkedIn and 23% are on Twitter. This includes your customers, of course, and also journalists searching for the latest information about your particular crisis.

Social media, in short, has to be a part of your crisis communication plan.

Empower your social media marketing and customer service teams with the information and autonomy they need to address questions, concerns and complaints with as little delay as possible.

When people feel like they are being heard, they are much more likely to close their computers feeling better about your company or products. By communicating early, often and honestly, you are able to rebuild relationships and trust when trust is not yet lost.

Honest, open communication is key. Like Chipotle, admit your mistakes or shortcomings and outline, publicly, what you are doing to fix the problem.

chipotle crisis communication

I can’t type it enough: honesty in a crisis is incredibly important. On social media, eagle-eyed trolls could pick your excuses apart or jump on you for spreading misinformation. Instead, use social media as a tool for keeping your audience informed with honesty and integrity.

Addressing misinformation and establishing reliability from the very start builds your credibility and will keep you afloat even as the crisis rocks your boat.

Step 4: Include Your Customers

Major business decisions happen behind closed doors, but there is no reason to shot our your customers completely, especially when the crisis could involve them, as in the case of Chipotle.

Your crisis plan needs to include an outline of how your social and content teams should react and respond to customer inquiry, but also how they can share your progress toward reaching your problem-solving goals.

When it comes to how you communicate, the sky’s the limit.

But, the best methods for you will depend on where your customers are and your own creativity.

If your audience skews younger, for example, you could use Snapchat or Facebook’s new live streaming feature to show behind the scenes footage. Or, have your leadership team do a social media Q&A to help educate the audience on next steps.

Photography and video are visual ways of sharing improvements and can be shared across all social platforms. Regular blogs leveraging new visual content and status updates keep the audience informed and provide a searchable resource for people searching for your business.

Eventually, the all-out panic of crisis mode calms down and the real process of rebuilding begins.

Being able to draw on resources created during the crisis like blog content and informative landing pages, will make addressing future concerns easier. Not to mention that all of this content now becomes a marker to show how far you’ve come. Because it will not be business as usual. It will be business better than usual.

Crisis Communication Happens All of the Time

Are you convinced by Chipotle’s crisis communication plan? Which tactics went the farthest in convincing you to return to your burrito? Let us know in the comments.

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Liz Millikin
About the Author:

Liz Millikin

Liz sees marketing as a never-ending puzzle to be solved. With a background in digital marketing that focused on content and social media, she believes that a passion for craft is key, but analytics are the lock. Together, they open the door to marketing that moves the needle for your business. When not writing, she can be found skiing, biking, or curled up with a book. Find her on Twitter @eamillikin.

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