Gentle readers, I have a confession.
My Chipotle withdrawal symptoms are approaching unmanageable.
I haven’t been there in weeks, since the news of the E. coli outbreak hit. And I’m jonesing for a burrito bowl with brown rice and chicken. I am dreaming of the corn salsa. And those chips, covered as they are in cilantro and lime, or the salt from unicorn tears, or whatever.
Still, food-borne illness is no joke and so I was resigned to gritting my teeth and getting through this difficult time. My determination was bolstered by one of the company’s co-CEO’s comments early last week to investors, in which Marty Moran essentially blames the media and the Centers for Disease Control for over-hyping the problem. Moran said, “Because the media likes to write sensational headlines, you’ll probably see, you know, when somebody sneezes … ‘Ah, it’s E. coli from Chipotle’ for a little bit of time.”
But late last week, perhaps in reaction to Moran’s inartful comments, the company began a concerted push that had the other co-CEO, Steve Ells, out front and apologizing. His first stop? The Today Show, where he offered a straightforward mea culpa for the E. coli outbreak.
As apologies go, it wasn’t particularly smooth or polished. In fact, it was halting and awkward but it felt authentic to me. I could feel this guy’s pain at putting his customers through a terrible illness, his frustration at not yet having better answers about what happened and how it happened, and his sincere desire to ensure something like this never happens to his company again.
The push has continued this week, when Chipotle bought full-page ads in 61 papers across the country to apologize to consumers and outline steps the company is taking to improve food safety.
Watching this all unfold last week, I was struck by two things:

  1. Two CEOs is a quirk of Chipotle’s corporate structure, and one that led to two different messages. This is why, when working with crisis clients, we urge institutions to identify one primary spokesperson and to deviate from this plan only in the rarest of circumstances. Otherwise, the voice of your organization can be perceived as confused, diluted, or schizophrenic, leading your audiences to wonder, “Whom should I trust?”.
  2. Apologies matter. If you’ve screwed up, own it, apologize, and share how you’re going to fix the situation. Ells did that—he shared the company’s plans to upgrade food safety processes and procedures, saying, “The procedures we’re putting in place today are so above industry norms that we are going to be the safest place to eat.” And the company leveraged the words and spirit of the apology by running ads that share the same sentiments while also outlining new food safety steps.

Had I see only Monty Moran’s comments, I believe I’d still be off Chipotle. But watching Steve Ells gave me confidence that the situation is being handled with great seriousness and concern for customers. So, I think I know what I’m having for dinner tonight….