Some PR professionals have some harsh words for Chipotle — the chain is handling its food-borne illness crisis all wrong.
Since Oct. 31, the former Wall Street darling has been hit by a food-borne illness double whammy. First, officials linked it to an E. coli outbreak that has sickened 52 people in multiple states. Then, Boston College said health officials confirmed a food-borne illness outbreak linked to a Boston-area Chipotle. More than 120 BC students reported to the college's health services with symptoms consistent with norovirus.
Then, 65 people, including Boston College students and basketball players, fell ill after eating at one of its locations and tests indicated the presence of norovirus, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.
The fallout has hammered Chipotle's comparable-restaurant sales and share price, which has dropped about 13 percent since the problems surfaced.
In response, the chain temporarily shut down some affected locations, adopted more stringent food safety initiatives and conducted extensive ingredient testing.
Still, crisis management pros say the restaurant's response is just not cutting it.
"They're not going far enough," Gene Grabowski, who runs the crisis group at kglobal, told CNBC.
"They're not painting pictures with their words," he said. "They're still doing too much explaining."
A veteran of handling food recalls and food-borne illness, Grabowski has worked on more than 160 such incidents, including the Blue Bell ice cream and Aspen Foods chicken recalls.
"The real problem is they're playing defense. A key is to go on the offensive," he said.
Chipotle responded to the criticism.
"I think it's very easy to armchair quarterback these things and say a company should have done this, or could have done that better," spokesman Chris Arnold said in an email. "The fact is, since this incident began, we have taken swift and decisive actions to limit the spread of it, offered our sincerest apologies to people who have been affected, worked diligently with health officials to investigate, been extremely transparent and forthcoming with new information at every turn, retained nationally renowned food safety experts to work with us to reassess our practices with an eye to making improvements in any way we can, and shared details of an enhanced food safety plan to be sure our food and our restaurants are as safe as possible going forward."
During a conference call Tuesday, Chipotle said it plans to double down on outreach after the CDC officially declares the outbreak is over. Once this happens, the chain will use full-page newspaper letters, interviews, traditional marketing, additional direct mail and social media outreach to tell customers about changes it implemented and invite them back to its locations.
In its latest annual report, Chipotle acknowledged its use of fresh produce and meats, traditional cooking methods and local and organic produce when seasonally available, may present additional food-borne illness risk.
Not all of these small suppliers will be on board with implementing its more robust food safety procedures, said co-CEO Steve Ells. But it does plan to help small suppliers to change who are willing to do so.
Grabowski said this is a step in the right direction.
DXagency CEO Sandy Rubinstein gave Chipotle's handling of the crisis a C-, saying, "I really don't think they've done anything well."
Rubinstein stressed its response has not been very "digestible" for the general public and said it needs to tweak its message, such as walking customers through exactly how the chain handles ingredients. Discussing possible price increases in the future was also a huge no-no, she added.
Chipotle's uphill battle intensified with the Boston outbreak, said Michael Gordon, CEO of Group Gordon.
To weather the crisis, Chipotle needs to make it crystal clear how it is fixing the problems to ensure another incident does not crop up. If it can go for a sustained period of time without a new one, customers will start returning.
"If they communicated now how they're going to do things differently, the proof will be in the burrito. Words can only go so far. The other piece is the actions need to match it," Gordon said.
Said Chiptole's Arnold: "We will continue to be transparent as this moves forward to resolution and as we continue to implement changes to make our restaurants better when this is over. And we will absolutely look at everything we have done and see how we can make our incident response plans better."