Bader Rutter

How a spark creates a wildfire: your guide to preparing for a crisis

If I were Chipotle, I would be holding my breath through next quarter. Chipotle, the consumer darling for much of 2015, took a number of blows last fall, leading to a complete overhaul of food safety processes and a stock drop of more than 30 percent. On Feb. 8, Chipotle closed stores across the country to have an all-employee meeting to address food safety concerns, retrain employees on food safety (in a very public way) and announce new measures. The trouble started in November when, after two Escherichia coli (E. coli) outbreaks linked to Chipotle, the company temporarily closed 43 restaurants in Washington and Oregon. In December, a smaller outbreak was tied to Chipotle restaurants in Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma. During that time, Chipotle also was blamed when 141 Boston College students were reported to have contracted norovirus. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closed the investigation on the E. coli outbreaks without finding a source of the illness, Chipotle also was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in connection with a criminal investigation. The subpoena called for information on food safety as far back as January 2013. During this period, @ChipotleTweets was busy responding to customers and promoting the new food safety initiative underway. Some responses were a bit odd and likely not fully supported by review from Chipotle’s legal team. Chipotle Tweet Chipotle’s situation is an example of how a problem can spread like wildfire. With issues, the potential to go international is always possible. In fact, an industry survey found that 28 percent of crises spread to international media within one hour, and nearly 70 percent make international news within one day. For issues and crisis management, you need to take action and monitor. But it starts with preparation. Preparing for the unknown can be an intimidating task. It takes time to work through likely scenarios, and you’ll need to have some tough conversations. But we can assure you: Being prepared will make it so much easier if you find yourself on the wrong side of a trending hashtag.

Feeling unprepared? Marketing Executives Networking Group notes in an article that only 51 percent of companies have a crisis management plan. But worse yet? Only one-third of those companies are “confident” their plan will actually do the job during a crisis.


We all know how important it is to be prepared online for an issue. As such, you’ve probably already developed a document with some general rules for whom to contact and what’s okay to say in response to certain topics. But there it sits on your bookshelf, gathering dust.

Let’s say something does happen. You dive headfirst into that bookshelf, wipe off the front cover of the binder … and then what? Do you know what to do with the information inside? Does the person who created this resource even work at your company anymore? Are the topics you prepared to respond to still relevant?

The clock is ticking. Will you have a response ready promptly? Because although it takes an average of 21 hours for companies to adequately defend themselves,1 it’s not unlikely that you could need something in an hour or two.

Perhaps it’s time to take the preparation you’ve already developed to the next level. Adequate preparation is the first — and biggest — part of the crisis management process. And there are seven key steps for issues/crises management preparation:

  • Review your process and messaging oftenissues_management
  • Know your go-to people
  • Set ground rules and roles
  • Think through every single worst-case scenario
  • Write and approve any communication you might need
  • Have a stoplight system for issues (red, yellow and green alerts)
  • Have a plan for crisis team communication


Keeping an eye on what people are writing about your brand doesn’t necessarily require investing in monitoring software. Even something as basic as setting up a few Google Alerts can help you listen and respond to what’s being said. Because no matter where you are on the supply chain, someone is likely already telling your story. When was the last time you did a YouTube search for your brand? Never? Let’s say your monitoring person uncovers an issue. Who else needs to be brought in on this potential crisis? This is the time when employees who are trained in and understand monitoring should jump in and take control. Decide whether it’s worth the fight. At some point, people thought there was a “rule” demanding a response to every comment written about your brand. That’s not necessarily wise, and one thing’s for certain — some people are more worthy of your attention than others. In other words, you don’t always need to go into full crisis mode anytime someone says something bad about your brand. In fact, going overboard can be worse than saying nothing at all. Do some homework on the commenter in question. Who is it? Who is the person involved with? Is it someone who’s baiting you? Or is it just an average Joe having a bad day? When you’re preparing for a crisis, consider what qualifies someone as being highly influential. Is it a certain number of followers, or certain connections or associations? How will you prioritize whom you respond to first during a crisis? Take the example of musician Dave Carroll. His guitar was damaged while in the care of United Airlines, and when the company didn’t handle the situation as he’d hoped, he made a YouTube video and song to bash them. In retrospect, the company would have been well-served knowing this guy had a loyal following who would respond to his message. In fact, the bad PR that came as a result caused United Airlines’ stock price to drop by 10%, a loss for shareholders of $180 million — a number so significant that the airline could have bought Carroll more than 51,000 replacement guitars.


Someone out there is likely telling your story for you. Is it a good one? It’s time to start proactively telling your own story. Build up story points and share them via video so you’re the one telling your story. By sharing those story points, we’re not talking about posting entertaining photos every five minutes. There’s Pinterest for that. Identifying what truly matters to your audience and finding an emotional connection to your brand can pave the way to create a loyal following. Consider agriculture and seed companies. While there might not be people clamoring at the chance to follow a seed brand on Facebook, people will rally around the mission of feeding the world. Be real. This is especially important if you’re ever going to face issues. Find your advocates. Telling your audience a real, genuine story, can help build a team of advocates — the kinds of people who are going to be influential and invaluable should an issue ever affect you. You’re really going to have a hard time finding these folks when your brand is already in the mud, so start working to develop these relationships now. Who else is going to speak on behalf of your brand? Third-party content experts can be great resources and support when you need it. These are the people you can lean on to answer the hard questions. Investigate who these people are now and begin engaging with them. This takes finesse; you need to engage slowly, not just pitch a story. Be a good neighbor. We’re talking about building good brand equity now so you can take it out of the bank when you need it. Consider having programs to give back to the community or develop sustainable business practices. Not only are these good story points for your brand, they’re the right thing to do. Here’s the catch: These efforts need to be genuine. If you’re going to do good things, do them for the simple sake of doing good things. Sure, they make for positive stories, but that can’t be the main focus. This is especially true for our younger generations. More than ever before, they’re focused on supporting (and working for) companies that are transparent and spend substantial time and money on social good. These are the type of people who can spot “green washing” a mile away.


Gone are the days of the dusty issues-management binders. Today, you need to have a thorough crisis plan that includes a holistic team, messaging for a wide variety of possible issues and a clear process for managing an issue. Monitoring what’s said about your brand is really the only way to know who’s telling your story for you, and makes a solid foundation for which to take proactive action. And be sure to review your protocols and training procedures every six months to a year. Is your organization ready for a crisis? Be sure to download our free e-book, 7 Prep Tips for Issues & Crises: Preventing and Putting Out Fires That Arise.  

1. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Containing a crisis. Dealing with corporate disasters in the digital age. 2013.

This post was originally authored by Angie Greving, BR’s former public relations team leader.


Updates in your inbox