Chipotle's bad timing in closing restaurants

If the E. coli outbreak at Chipotle didn't scare you enough, the latest headlines will.

"Chipotle Closing All Its Stores," "Chipotle to Close All Its Restaurants," or similar snippets spread across the web last week. If you scanned the headlines like me, you probably believed Chipotle was closing its stores forever.

Most journalists don't have control over the headlines of their stories, but this isn't a communications mistake Chipotle can blame on copy editors. Chipotle mismanaged its communications crisis by burying the lead with the media – and then skipping crucial crisis steps.

A person walks past a Chipotle Mexican Grill store location in downtown Portland on November 3, 2015 in Portland, Oregon.
Steve Dykes | Getty Images
A person walks past a Chipotle Mexican Grill store location in downtown Portland on November 3, 2015 in Portland, Oregon.

In theory, Chipotle should get credit for closing its stores to communicate new health standards to employees. They are putting health above profits. Right?


High health standards should be expected at a chain like Chipotle and no restaurant should have to close its doors to train employees how to correctly handle food. That's a poor communications model that destroys trust with consumers and crushes Wall Street profits.

Here's another reason why Chipotle's communications strategy is a PR lesson on what NOT to do.

Chipotle isn't shutting down their restaurants until Feb. 8. So what happens until Feb. 7? Will employees continue working under the same health standards that ignited six outbreaks related to norovirus, E. coli and salmonella? The company never communicated that answer.

There are a few simple rules in crisis communications that apply to every situation: 1) Get yourself out of the news cycle as quickly as possible. 2) Communicate why and how this won't happen again. 3) Don't blame others. Accept responsibility for your mistakes.

By waiting until next month to close their stores, Chipotle keeps its name in the news cycle for another three weeks. There's no reason for Chipotle to announce a crisis solution, like this one, that will go into effect so far in the future. Chipotle needs an urgency.

Chipotle CEO Steve Ells spoke at an investor conference last week, promising to pour in more marketing dollars to win back customers trust. He also said that he will put aside more money for food-safety programs that will financially stabilize the chain by 2017, but he glossed over how and why this health outbreak won't happen again.

His message was muddled. It involved something about "initiatives at the supply level" and "central kitchens and restaurants."

Yet another Chipotle PR mistake.

When you discuss why and how a crisis situation won't occur again, the message must be concise and clear: Stay away from industry jargon that consumers don't understand. Communicate on their level why this problem won't reoccur. Don't allow your legal team to hijack the message.

Consumers are finicky with their food, so who knows how Chipotle will recover in 2017, as Ells predicted. But one thing I do know: The once-crowded Chipotle inside the Empire State Building is fairly empty now. I looked in the window at lunchtime last week and saw only three people in line.

Perhaps some consumers, like me, are still questioning whether those initiatives at the supply level and central kitchens will actually keep them safe. Or, maybe they're just playing it safe and going to another spot.

Commentary by Mark Macias, head of Macias PR, a global public-relations firm, that has run media and branding campaigns for politicians, tech start-ups, financial firms, nonprofits and companies. He's also author of the book, "Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing theMedia." Follow him on Twitter @markmacias.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion onTwitter.