Chipotle has gotten itself into pretty hot water lately, and it looks like the quick-service restaurant’s woes may be just beginning. Stock price has fallen by a third. Earnings per share estimates have been revised down, again. Federal investigators are knocking on the door. Loyal customers are sounding off. Surely company leaders are feeling sick. In classic public relations, this is a textbook emerging crisis.

An emerging crisis sounds less threatening than a “flash and bang” event. But experienced, strategic public relations practitioners will warn otherwise. Emerging crises can take a serious toll on a business.

It starts with an incident. Typically, that incident resulted from something that could either have been prevented or could be fixed with a policy change or shift in operations practice. Leaders may see it as an isolated case. No big deal.

Except it happens again. And maybe again. And once more – but this time on a much more public scale.

We counsel clients to beware of the emerging crisis. Here are tips for mitigating an emerging public relations crisis at the onset:

  • Take it seriously. Even an isolated incident is worthy of proper attention. It may never grow into a full-blown crisis, but the possibility certainly exists and can have damaging effects on your business.
  • Hire experienced communications counsel. If you are sued, you turn to a lawyer. A company has a team of CPAs to handle its taxes. When a crisis occurs – or better yet, to mitigate or prevent such an event – a professional crisis communicator can lead the company through best practices to preserve the business and protect its reputation.
  • Determine the root of the issue. Find out the cause and work quickly to resolve the problem for your customers, employees and stakeholders.
  • Evaluate the scale and scope of the problem. In a multi-location business, like Chipotle, it is probable that a similar event has occurred or could occur in the future. Communicate with the broader team to pinpoint how far the crisis could potentially reach.
  • Establish a forward-looking plan of action. Don’t apply a Band-Aid when a suture is needed. It’s important to set a long-term plan for holistically addressing the issue. Think about implications to each store, the corporate team, company stock and corporate reputation.
  • Maintain open communication. Throughout the process, share the company’s proactive approach to solving the problem. Show compassion and concern, and demonstrate your genuine desire to make it right. Authentic and open communication gives customers, employees and shareholders confidence that the issue will be resolved.

Hindsight is a luxury, not a guarantee. As a company leader, beware of the emerging crisis – and take actions to protect your brand and your position.

Photo by Michael Saechang, via Flickr