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Chipotle Uses Social Media To Combat Hepatitis ScareChipotle Uses Social Media To Combat Hepatitis Scare

When my neighborhood Chipotle restaurant, where my wife and I had been eating every week for years, was linked to a hepatitis outbreak, the company turned to social networks as a part of a campaign to rehabilitate its reputation. I ended up respecting the fast-food chain for its conscientious business practices and innovative use of social media for marketing and public relations. But, unfortunately, that didn't make me want to return to Chipotle.

Mitch Wagner

May 19, 2008

10 Min Read

When my neighborhood Chipotle restaurant, where my wife and I had been eating every week for years, was linked to a hepatitis outbreak, the company turned to social networks as a part of a campaign to rehabilitate its reputation. I ended up respecting the fast-food chain for its conscientious business practices and innovative use of social media for marketing and public relations. But, unfortunately, that didn't make me want to return to Chipotle.Last month, people in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa, Calif., started coming down with Hepatitis A. The connection: They'd all eaten at one particular branch of Chipotle, a national chain of burrito shops known for big portions and chunky guacamole. Health officials tested all 26 employees of that Chipotle, but found that none of them had hepatitis. Still, my wife and I found this story alarming. We'd been eating take-out from that same Chipotle -- the one linked to the hepatitis cases -- for years.

So we started looking for an alternate source of burritos, and I wrote about it on my blog: Not getting hepatitis is one of the main things I look for in a restaurant. Now, this is my personal blog. It's a place where I post non-technology-related essays, photos, comments on books, movies, and TV shows, and such. I do post links there to all my major InformationWeek articles and blogs, but it's not affiliated with InformationWeek or its parent company. And it has about a dozen or two dozen regular readers. It's a really, really small blog. So I was surprised to get this response three days later: I am a Chipotle employee myself, so if you can excuse that, I thought I'd reply to your blog. We certainly wish to apologize for any anxiety we have caused you. We want you to know that the safety and well-being of our customers is our highest priority, and we are cooperating completely with your local health department in San Diego. Perhaps media reports haven't mentioned this, but 100% of our crew and managers at our La Mesa restaurant were tested by the health department and 100% of them are clean. All of them have been cleared by the health department to return to work. Additionally, this restaurant has been inspected by the health department five times in the last five months, including two inspections in the last week, and received A grades (or excellent) in each inspection, and is open for normal business. Therefore, we do definitely feel it is safe to eat at Chipotle -- the health department has said so publicly (and we hope you still have some faith in them), and we wouldn't be open for business if they didn't believe it was safe. And while the health department has not yet reached a conclusion to the source of the hepatitis A cases, we'll continue to work with them and help them with whatever they ask of us. We do hope you will consider this information then and give us another chance. Sincerely, Joe Stupp
Chipotle I e-mailed a response back to Joe: Hi, Joe -- thanks for commenting on my personal blog, Mitch Wagner's Blog By day, I'm a tech journalist who follows social media (among other things) and you've piqued my interest -- how'd you find my blog? Is Chipotle doing a lot of work on social media and blogs with regard to this hepatitis issue? We ended up having a nice e-mail exchange, which I'll reproduce here, lightly edited. Joe responded: You're on page two on a Google search for "chipotle san diego hepatitis blog." We don't typically mess with blogs at all, since it looks like "intervention," and we don't wish to look like the big corporate clown in such cases. But in this particular instance, we were concerned about local perceptions, and we wanted to try to disseminate as much of the information we know that we can to hopefully help folks feel a little safer about visiting our restaurant. Me: "Are you doing other things to try to use the Internet to get the word out? Using Facebook, Twitter, etc.?" Joe: I use Facebook all the time personally, but there's nothing much going on about this on there, other than a small group that isn't growing, and we're letting sleeping dogs lie. Haven't seen anything on Twitter either. Other than that, we get probably 200 customer comments a day on our website (not all on this topic, of course, but a few on occasion), and I am taking those as they come. That's pretty much all of it for now. We're not used to this sort of thing (bad media coverage) at all, so this is sort of an experiment as to what works and what doesn't for us. Me: So you're basically just googling for comments and responding to them on individual blogs? Do you find that effective? I mean, a skeptic might say you should focus on the news media -- although Dell is adopting a similar strategy, focusing on the blogs, trying to build reputation one customer at a time. This is what I was referring to with Dell's use of social media to turn around its reputation: "Dell is pioneering Web 2.0 and social networks to transform its business, trying to turn around a reputation for terrible customer service that Dell has been struggling with for several years. The strategy is controversial -- while Dell touts its successes, a couple of Dell customers I've talked to say customer service is still rotten." Joe responded: Yes, but I'm not responding to all or even most of them -- some are clearly weird ones that we wouldn't want to touch (anti-immigration-ish, political, etc.). We already do the normal news media stuff with our own PR people, as much as we can or feel it's worthwhile. I am tackling the personal blogs as I see fit, since I run our website and handle most of our individual customer service issues. Me: Thanks, Joe. How many posts and blogs would you estimate you respond to? How much time per day do you estimate you're spending on this? And what's your title? Good Web site, by the way -- I remember being impressed by it when we were looking for a local Chipotle after trying the restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. Joe: Well, I've probably only done about a dozen blog responses so far on this particular topic, but I am the only one doing them. As for comments on our website, I couldn't really estimate that. On all topics Chipotle-oriented, I usually answer at least sixty to a hundred new comments a day through our website (not including phone calls and snail mail), followed by all the follow-up e-mails I get from customers who continue to write me for years. But I have a team of four others who help me as well, and they all do about the same. My title is Manager, Duct Tape and Plungers. Fancy term for head of customer service and website (haha). Glad you like the website. I pick all of our music playing in our restaurants, too. Me: What would you say is the value of doing this kind of community outreach, and how is it different from dealing with the traditional newspapers, TV news, and news radio stations? Joe: "Well, it's obviously much more personal, and I know that's cliché, but it's true. People feel that a big company is speaking to them directly (and we are), and hopefully realize that we actually care. Traditional media is great, but with all the massive amounts of media out there, sometimes the messages we or anyone tries to send through traditional channels get lost in the clutter and the noise. Sometimes it's better to go it one person at a time, like we do through our website communication, too." I wished Joe luck and he responded: "Same to you. I'll let you know if we hear anything further on this. My personal suspicion is that they may never figure out what caused this or if it was even us." I have to confess something here: I waited nearly three weeks to post this story because I wanted to give it a happy ending. I wanted to say how Joe's great use of social media had convinced me to go back to Chipotle, and tell all my friends and family, and how we're eating there every week now, just like before. After all, we'd been eating at Chipotle for years, and had no ill health effects -- we didn't have any hepatitis symptoms. The food is great, the ingredients are fresh, the staff is friendly and efficient, and the place is always -- always -- scrupulously clean, every time we go. Our friends who eat there say the same thing. And we did go back -- once. The food was fine. But it was like eating sand -- because all we could think as we were eating was don't think about the hepatitis don't think about the hepatitis don't think about the hepatitis. We haven't been back again. That's not fair, and it's not Chipotle's fault, and it's not entirely rational, but it's how we feel. I don't know if we'll ever go back. Maybe in a few years. So I guess the moral of the story is that marketing and customer relationship management isn't all-powerful, even if you sprinkle social media magic fairy dust on it. Sometimes you do everything right, and you still lose a customer. And a company's reputation can be injured irrevocably through just plain bad luck. But that's just my family's story. How's Chipotle doing since the hepatitis outbreak? Well, when I went in to the affected branch, business looked pretty good, about the same as that time on any Monday night. Searches for "chipotle" on Google, Google News, and Google Blog Search turned up mostly neutral or positive references to the restaurant, (although the search did turn up this article about a separate outbreak of digestive disease linked to a Chipotle in Ohio). So it doesn't look like there's any kind of rumor campaign against Chipotle as a result of the hepatitis. The stock price is down significantly from a high of 117.84 on April 22 to a close of 95.42 on Friday, while the NYSE itself was up during the same period. But I can't find any evidence that the stock decline was due to the report of a hepatitis outbreak at a single store (along with a separate outbreak in Ohio). And with the economy as shaky as it is, I think it's more likely that Chipotle's stock price woes are a result of the general malaise, rather than the hepatitis outbreak. In the end, I don't think the Chipotle chain was hurt by the hepatitis outbreak -- so long as the incident doesn't repeat itself. And I don't think Joe's blog campaign had much impact on the company's reputation, either. Still, I think Joe did the right thing here. When people are saying bad things about your company on blogs, you should be out there responding. In the age of social media, it's just basic good business, like washing your hands after you leave the bathroom if you're a food worker (or even if you're not). And that brings my story to a close -- except for one question. Does anybody know where to find a good, San Francisco-style burrito in San Diego?

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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