Terrible PR Year for Volkswagen and Chipotle

Chipotle PR

Over the years, both VW and Chipotle built ‘green’ images based on a strong interest in the environment and the health of the people living in it. As a restaurant chain, this task proved easier for Chipotle. The company prides itself on making great food from organic ingredients and did well with this campaign. As a car company, VW faced a taller order but held its own by sponsoring several initiatives to give back to the community.

As the larger company and the one faced with the bigger ‘green’ challenge, Volkswagen had the heavier fall from grace. While Chipotle customers experience some fear of eating at the restaurant again, no one blames the company for what many call an honest mistake or a mere accident. But for VW, the company’s intentional deceit contributed to its fall from grace.

Both companies teach the following lessons on PR in the wake of crisis.

VW Public Relations Crisis

Honesty Wins Every Time

Had VW displayed honesty in the design and testing of its vehicles, then it could have easily avoided the bad publicity and lawsuits levied from around the world on the car-maker. Chipotle, on the other hand, took the honest route even at the risk of failing to provide customers peace of mind. Rather than grasp for something to blame the outbreak on, the company admitted it has no idea what caused the outbreak.

Company spokesman, Chris Arnold, told the media, “It is doubtful that testing will ever be able to determine for sure what the cause of this was.” While this doesn’t make anyone feel better about eating at Chipotle, it does show the company’s honesty and transparency.

Do a Thorough Investigation

Though the company admits it may never learn where the bacteria came from, it still tries to uncover the underlying cause of the mysterious outbreak. According to Fox News, “Samples of multiple ingredients from a Chipotle near the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman are being tested at a state lab in Oklahoma City…”

In VW’s case, the investigation outing the company came from an external source. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) conducted a study on emissions from the cars, showing a discrepancy between lab test results and real-world emissions from the VW Jetta and VW Passat. Allowing someone else to be the bearer of bad news meant they gave the power away that could have helped them.

Volunteer Updates. Frequently.

CEO of Volkswagen of America, Michael Horn, publicly apologized for the company’s deception. In October, he also allowed lawmakers to drill him on the situation, and how VW plans to fix it. Even so, the company’s website does nothing to address the issue. It’s business as usual on VW as if they hope it all blows over on its own.

Chipotle, on the other hand, dedicated an entire page of its website to detailing what happened, how many consumers the e-Coli virus affected, what actions the company has taken, and an FAQ section to handle outstanding questions. The company’s full disclosure receives regular updates keeping customers informed.

Publicity Stunts

It may seem like an unlikely time to employ this mechanism, but Chipotle used this to great effect. On December 28, 2015, The Boston Globe reported:

“The head of Boston’s restaurant inspection program ate lunch at a Chipotle in Cleveland Circle on Monday afternoon to show he is confident that it is safe to dine at the location after more than 100 people got sick after eating there this month.

Commissioner William Christopher, who was joined by his chief of staff, Indira Alvarez, ate at the Cleveland Circle location after the restaurant officially reopened over the weekend following an inspection.”

While VW struggles to survive the emissions scandal, Chipotle shows true promise of recovering and fast. It helps that Chipotle’s PR scandal did not rise from intentional deceit, but the company’s PR tactics also helped maintain a positive image in the public eye.

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