William Espey of Chipotle

Lessons on Crisis Communications from Chipotle’s Brand Lead

William Espey shows meeting professionals how to defend a brand facing a PR crisis.

“Transparency builds trust. Trust builds loyalty,” says William Espey, the marketing visionary who built up Chipotle’s iconic brand since 1999 and helped the restaurant through its most challenging PR crisis after a series of E. coli outbreaks.

Meeting professionals can gain valuable insight from Espey. When customers trust a brand, their expectations expand and deepen. They’re invested emotionally, and their attachments run deep. So, when an issue presents itself, they expect to be treated like friends or family. And what do you do when your friends or family feel like you let them down?

You apologize. You listen. You communicate, and you work through the problem together by remembering why the relationship exists in the first place. “Brands have to be prepared to simply confront the truth immediately and own up to being at fault,” says Espey.

Evolving technology has made responding to crises at times more challenging than ever, now that attendees are scattered across so many social media platforms. “Where’s the audience? Where are your customers now? They’re everywhere and nowhere,” says Espey.

Attendees are constantly sharing ideas and opinions with each other, as well as their frustrations and criticisms. Sometimes these conversations spiral out of control. If you’re not engaged and responding in real time, there’s a higher chance that inaccurate or untrue information can get passed around and exacerbate the conflict.

The key is to embrace direct engagement. To do that effectively, here are some of Espey’s thoughts on brand building and communications for meetings and events.

Everything You Do Is Branding
“Everything is branding, and branding is everything,” says Espey, underscoring that everything from employee actions to corporate announcements represent the brand.

It’s just as important for planners to keep this in mind while planning events—if messaging is consistent and relevant, brands can build goodwill with clients, customers, and attendees that ultimately has the potential to form a halo effect. Then, if crises occur, there is a much greater possibility of the parties coming together to alleviate the issue, based on the reservoir of goodwill. Brands have personalities that express values, says Espey—and every aspect of a customer’s experience with your event contributes to how they view your brand. 

“When we start expressing values as a brand, we create connections with customers on a more profound level than just a simple transaction,” says Espey. “You’re actually sharing something. You’re sharing a connection that creates a long-term customer relationship.”

These connections matter because customers look to brands for transcendent experiences. “As a company, as a brand, that’s your job, to make your customers have these moments where they feel that bliss, where you’re taking their problems away from them, and they will love you for it,” says Espey. “I think with Chipotle, what happened and why it was so dramatic, is people really connected with the brand and the brand personality. They really felt it was a friend, and they felt betrayed.”

Turn Your Team into Brand Ambassadors
Because every interaction affects your brand’s reputation, Espey emphasizes the importance of hiring the right people and retaining talent. “It’s important to understand your employees and how they represent your brand,” he says. “As you’re hiring people, as you are training them, you must be acculturating them into what your brand is and what your core beliefs are, so even in a casual conversation on the airport shuttle bus, they’re representing that brand in a way that you feel comfortable with. 

It doesn’t stop with hiring. Remind employees of their roles and responsibilities as brand ambassadors daily—whether they are in their first year of service, or their twentieth. Just as important is for the management team to exemplify what it means to be a brand ambassador.

Lastly, don’t forget external parties. Your clients can be your most powerful brand ambassadors, so make sure that you are consistently nurturing those relationships, which will encourage them to want to speak highly of your brand to others.      

Develop a Communications Plan
A communications strategy is essential but it is only as good as the team-members executing it. Once the strategy is established everyone must have a solid understanding of their roles, as well as the roles of others, to ensure clear and coherent messaging throughout all mediums. While every channel, or platform is different, the brand voice and the messaging must remain consistent. Given the nuances of different channels, static talking points will come off as inauthentic. Instead, create communications that convey the general tone and desired messages, including relevant facts, then trust team-members to tailor them to audiences on different channels.

Espey suggests having an individual or group assigned to specific areas based on their knowledge and depth of experience, but managed under an overarching communications team to ensure that the brand messaging is similarly reflected in all instances

Finally, it’s important to remember that all successful brand communication relies on transparency and authenticity—especially during and after confronting a full-blown crisis. Chipotle’s response to its E-coli crisis included clear and detailed information about the company’s plans to address the situation. 

Build Trust, Gain Loyalty
When attendees come to an event, they expect a smooth and rewarding experience. The key is to avoid unwelcome surprises so communicating in advance can prevent PR problems.

Espey also advises meeting planners to create a system that empowers team-members to resolve attendees’ problems proactively and quickly—this could be a designated and well-identified troubleshooting team or a specific Twitter handle or email address to message. He calls this a “pressure release valve” that allows attendees to release their frustrations with you easily and directly.

Getting to know your client is another important part of managing and avoiding potential problems. When you understand what the client is trying to achieve—the objective of the meeting—you’re in a better position to communicate with attendees and bridge gaps in expectations.

At the same time, you’re building trust. If something should go wrong, and you’ve built enough trust over time, attendees and clients will have confidence that you and your team will handle crises effectively, says Espey.

Learn from Mistakes 

One way to mitigate PR issues or potential crises is to learn from yours and others’ past mistakes. Chipotle’s peers in the restaurant industry took note of what happened and proactively began evaluating their supply chains to avoid a similar circumstance, including developing contingency communication plans to manage the fallout from bad publicity. 

Likewise, when event planners make a mistake, it can be an incredibly valuable learning tool, says Espey. It shows where your event may be exposed to potential risk and provides the opportunity to address them. This is where post-event surveys can be especially useful, to provide attendees with the opportunity to tell you where you can adjust or improve for next year.

If the worst happens and you face a crisis, it’s imperative that you reflect on your communications efforts afterwards. A formal review of what went well and what could be improved upon will help ongoing efforts to run a strong communications program.





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