In another life, I worked as the media relations manager for Jack in the Box Inc., the San Diego-based quick-serve chain known for its clown-headed marketing icon, hamburgers and, unfortunately, a deadly food-safety crisis in 1993 that brought the term E. coli into the mainstream.

While my tenure at Jack began six years after the crisis, when the company was on the upswing and preparing to go public, I was always keenly aware of the crisis and how it affected every facet of the business. Though the company was once on the precipice, it didn’t give up. It took a tragedy and turned it into an unwavering commitment to making food safety the top priority and establishing standards and guidelines that revolutionized an industry.

After living and breathing food-safety communications for 10 years, I’m always curious to see how other companies respond to a food-related crisis. In 2015, we saw some well-known and beloved brands, in particular Chipotle Mexican Grill and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (a growing independent chain from my hometown of Columbus, Ohio), shift into crisis mode as food-safety recalls or illness besieged their businesses. So, how did they rate in their crisis communications response?

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams

When a pint of ice cream pulled randomly from a grocery store freezer in Nebraska tested positive for Listeria in April, Jeni’s moved quickly to close its scoop shops, recall all ice cream from retail locations and shut down production. Though there were no reported illnesses, the company took these extreme measures to ensure that there wouldn’t be.

To the legion of Jeni’s faithful fans, this was a sign that the company placed the health and safety of its customers above the bottom line. Customers responded by posting virtual and literal love notes of encouragement online and on scoop shop doors and windows.

Jeni’s also made use of every communications avenue to keep customers informed about the recall, including its website and social media. The company was transparent and open, both of which foster goodwill and trust from consumers, which was vitally important when the company had to recall product a second time following the discovery of Listeria at its production facility.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Much like Jeni’s, Chipotle has customers that will brave long lunchtime lines and packed parking lots to get their favorite made-to-order burrito. The company has built its reputation on doing things differently from other quick-serve restaurants and serving fresh “food with integrity.”

Late last year, however, the restaurant chain was plagued by a series of food-related illnesses in nine states; some have been attributed to E. coli, others Salmonella or a norovirus. In response, the CEO and founder Steve Ells apologized to customers on the “Today Show” and followed up with a full-page newspaper apology that outlined the company’s renewed commitment to improving its food-safety procedures. During the height of the crisis, the letter from Ells was posted on the company’s home page and accompanied by a section devoted to a food-safety update and FAQs. Both were great features, but they were posted in the middle of the page instead of more prominently at the top.

Some public-relations experts have dinged Chipotle for seeming to focus initially on shareholders and spending too much time explaining the difference between Salmonella and a norovirus instead of addressing the situation with customers.

For me, it was comments from the company’s chief financial officer blaming sensational media headlines and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting methods for the company’s woes that really diminished Chipotle’s PR efforts. When a crisis strikes, you own it and do everything you can to solve the problem, address questions and concerns and then put the framework into place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

On Feb. 8, Chipotle closed all of its restaurants for a few hours to allow its roughly 60,000 employees to attend a food-safety meeting via a live broadcast. During the meeting, the company announced that tomatoes and other produce would now be diced at a central kitchen to reduce cross-contamination. Other changes included upping paid sick time to five days for employees and a $10 million investment to help small suppliers meet the new food-safety standards.

The company-wide meeting was certainly a bold gesture and demonstrated the company’s commitment to righting its food-safety ship. But, I have to ask the question — should it really have come to this?

The final verdict

Jeni’s: Columbus’ ice cream queen was quick, transparent, open and consistent in communicating the situation to customers. Now, the company needs an exceptional food-safety program that matches the quality of its communications and product.

Chipotle: Chipotle did a lot of things right, but the extent and longevity of its food-related crisis showed the holes in its crisis communication capability as well as its food-safety program.

The company also loses points for the CFO trying to scapegoat the media and the CDC.  NP