Did Chipotle lie to us? Or is the company just really stupid? Either, way, right now the company’s PR/Social Media department is re-defining the term “epic fail” thanks to this absolutely ridiculous Chipotle Facebook cat “issue.” Huh? No idea what I’m talking about? Let’s review.

On Friday night, a woman who, according to her profile, is a manager at Chipotle, posted from her Android phone:

“Soo just ran over a white cat on my way home…oops!!!

Then the woman, a few minutes later, posted, “lol..one less cat..don’t like ‘em.” What followed over the next half day was some inane dialogue between friends of hers talking about how she should respect cats more and her getting angry that people were giving her shit. Great. Whatever. Who cares. Well, someone who noticed it cared enough to bring it to the attention of the Chipotle Facebook page. Here’s the dialogue/post in question:

Let me be yet another voice to say: Who. Gives. A. Shit. Seriously. How does this affect Chipotle? A manager for one of its stores hit a cat with her car and was less than sympathetic about it. Big freakin’ deal. This has nothing to do with the company, who, like any major company in America, probably employs hundreds or thousands of people who have done something worse in their lives than hitting  a cat.

So what did Chipotle do when a bit of a kerfuffle started up on its Facebook page? Well, by all appearances, the first thing they did was lie to us:

Riiiiight. Are you serious Chipotle? Now I know technically you aren’t “lying” if you believe something to be true, but c’mon! What kind of PR department do you have that bought that load of crap? Do you have anyone on staff that understands Facebook and social media? Right, I’m sure the middle-aged female who manages one of your locations had her Facebook account hacked.

What did that hacker do? Steal information? Post embarrassing photos? No, they posted, from an Android phone no less, about how she just hit a cat with her car. Then, the “hacker” returned to the same Facebook thread, the morning AFTER the alleged incident to continue the conversation. What you don’t see in the screengrab above is that she even posted at 2:43 the next afternoon. Seems like a plausible story right? And by plausible of course, I mean whomever at Chipotle actually bought that story is a grade-A moron. Yet the company came out and said the story was “completely false.” Not that they were looking into it, but that nope, the wizards in their PR department were totally sure that this was a malicious Facebook hacking.

But it gets worse. Rather than ignore the handful of people bringing this up on its page and letting an asinine story die down on its own volition, someone in the Chipotle PR/Social Media department decided to post the status update you see above to the Chipotle page. Congratulations guys! You just lied to/misled/duped 1.1 million people!

Originally, there were just a small number of people wondering why a Chipotle manager was so insensitive to cats, but for every individual saying that, there were just as many people making declarations such as:

Soo…. she posted it on her personal facebook? How is this Chipotle’s fault? Are they supposed to control how she feels about everything? I don’t agree with her and think it’s sad, but come on… What do you expect Chipotle to do about it?

Exactly. How is this Chipotle’s problem? It’s not. But they went ahead and MADE it a problem. What followed over the next few hours was a comedy of errors in which Chipotle made a valiant effort to get people to stop talking about the cat issue on its Facebook wall, leading to, you guessed it, THOUSANDS more people talking about the cat issue on Chipotle’s Facebook wall:

Chipotle-responsechipotle-mexican-grill-pr-response

First off Chipotle, you posted the same message twice. Way to go. Yes, I know you forgot the word “like” in the first post, and god forbid you do that, so you just HAD to repost the message, drawing even MORE attention to the issue. A bunch of stunned Chipotle fans, not used to seeing the page update about the same topic so repeatedly, and the vast majority of whom had no clue what Chipotle was talking about, started weighing in with their thoughts:

Would have never known about the “cat incident” unless chipotle kept posting “we are looking into the cat” issue. 50 times on my phone in my news feed.

I wish you would stop posting about this incident. I didn’t know about it until your post came up in my feed and I’m not interested in hearing more about it or being reminded of it repeatedly in my feed. This is not how I would handle an incident like this on my own company’s facebook page

I just wanna say that your PR dept. Is handling this brilliantly. I mean, seriously, you guys saw an issue, made it bigger, won’t stop talking about it and now have the XXX  crew making fun of you.

Then, about 10 pm EST on Monday, Chipotle slunk back to the wall of its Facebook page to very delicately say that they might, possibly, be really, really stupid and possibly, just maybe, could have been lying to everyone when they announced that the story was “completely false” and the account had been hacked:

chipotle-social-media-response

Oh brother. The initial information you were given may not have been accurate? Ya think? In the next 24 hours, expect a flurry of social media bloggers to focus on what Chipotle did “wrong” from a social media stand-point (in this case, a lot) and what they could do to correct it. As someone who worked on social media strategy for years with New Media Strategies, I have a few thoughts myself.

  • Announcing that the employee’s Facebook account was hacked

This was just epic stupid on so many levels. First off, for believing that nonsense, second, for not expressing some skepticism before making that part of your “story” or “response” and third of all for posting such a definitive statement on Facebook, essentially lying directly to 1.1 million people.

  • Posting status updates to address the story

Again, all sorts of epic stupid. This was a small issue that Chipotle made a major one. What they should have done was responded directly with comments to wall posts people were making about the issue. This way anyone reading the wall would see they were responding and addressing the issue. The story could have been effectively neutralized before anyone started talking about it widely. By posting a status update, suddenly 1.1 million Chipotle fans that had no idea this cat story was being talked about were informed about it. Not once, not twice, not three times, not even 4 times, but FIVE times in 8 hours. Overkill folks.

  • Not posting other status updates

Hey guys, lets post five times about some cat some lady hit who may or may not have had her Facebook account hacked! Um, you’re Chipotle. Act like it. Stop talking about some lady who hit a cat who happens to be a manager at your store. Don’t sink to the level of the loser internet trolls who will flail around about anything. Post about your new burrito, your latest store opening or some line cook who totally just got his masters degree after taking night classes or something. ACT LIKE A REAL COMPANY – not some pathetic teenager trying to make up a bullshit story about why they were late for curfew. Chipotle finally got the memo – at 2:30 am Tuesday morning:

chipotle-social-media

Right. I’m sure they usually schedule updates like that one at 2:30 am. Too little too late my friends. UPDATE: Chipotle removed this post an hour later. Odd.

  • Deleting comments

Some social media analysts will tell you that a company should never delete comments from its Facebook wall. Those social media analysts are wrong. I’m not saying I disagree with them, I’m saying they are just flat wrong. Clifford Mark had a nice thorough post on this issue, but emphasized the “deleting comments is bad” meme a little too much.

There is nothing wrong with deleting inflammatory, profane, off-topic, spam or any sort of message that detracts from the goal of the wall as a place for people to discuss Chipotle. Keep in mind, this is not an open forum, this is Chipotle’s official page, and the people who receive its updates have willingly chosen to LIKE the page. Everytime you let some yokel turn a nothing issue into something big, you are robbing your 1.1 million fans of the ability to receive and view the type of information and discussion they hope to see on Chipotle’s page.

No, the problem isn’t deleting comments, it’s that A) this isn’t an effective strategy when you create a scenario that draws thousands of comments, and B) nowhere on Chipotle’s page do they lay out a “rules of the road” saying what type of wall posts and behavior will be permitted/tolerated/accepted. It’s the company’s page, they can do with it what they wish, but it would behoove them to lay out clear ground rules. Then, if people violate those ground rules, take out your comment deleting axe and go to town – lets not forget, this isn’t a town hall, and your fans don’t want it to be one.

  • Suggesting an employee’s comments don’t matter

You know what? In this case, the employee’s comments really don’t matter. It is asinine to suggest this has anything to do with Chipotle or how it runs its business. Many social media analysts will tell you that in this day and age if you are associated with your employer on your profile, anything you say can, could or should be a representation of your employer. Once again, those analysts are wrong.

This isn’t a scenario where someone is talking about something that affects Chipotle’s business in any way shape or form. Most people have at least some respect for peoples privacy and think they should be able to vent about a bad day at work or talk about what happened to them when driving home without it immediately being held against their employer. Chipotle has pathetically contributed to this piling on of one of its employees, allowing fans of its page to post screenshots of the woman’s original Facebook thread that are uncensored – sharing her name with anyone and everyone. Way to look out for the privacy and safety of your employees. Seriously, pathetic.

With disgust, I must quote Sarah Palin here and say “man up” corporate social media America. Don’t run like a scared little kid anytime someone suggests your company is somehow bad because one person you employ did something in their personal time that they kinda, sorta don’t like. Get some guts, and either say it’s not relevant, or bite the bullet, ignore it for a day or two and let it die.

  • Give away something free

Again, you will see social media analysts in the next day or two saying Chipotle should give away something free to its Facebook fans. NO. That is the dumbest idea yet. Regular readers of this blog remember when we broke the Papa John’s “Crybaby” story a couple years ago, in which Papa John’s was partially successful in mitigating a word-of-mouth disaster by offering $.23 pizzas to residents of Cleveland. Totally different situation. The Papa John’s logo was adorned on shirts mocking Lebron James. That is not even remotely similar to a woman who works at Chipotle hitting a cat with a car on a Thursday night. If Chipotle even considers giving away something free because of that, it will be a feckless cave-in to a bunch of internet troublemakers and I will lose even more respect for the company.

  • Tweak your wall

The default view for anyone visiting the Chipotle Facebook wall is to see a stream of comments from fans. Why? When people visit your wall they should, by default, see your company’s status updates. They are there primarily to read the news you are sharing, not what Joe C from Des Moines thinks about the tin foil you use to wrap your burritos.  I recommend companies always have its pages set up that way, but the moment an issue like this hits, the easiest thing to do for damage control is flip that switch to make your company’s status updates the default view for anyone visiting the page.

In a situation like this I don’t even have an issue with them disabling any comments to the wall for a day or two. Will people give them crap for shutting down the wall? Probably. But can people’s complaints about that possibly do more damage to the company than letting it get overrun with jokes about Chipotle’s food being made of cats while snarky bloggers like myself have a field day writing about it? No way.

So, yeah. Crazy story right? Thanks for reading. I conclude with the question I ask in my title: Chipotle, what the heck were your social media and PR teams THINKING????

44 Responses

  1. Jennifer Nugent

    I concur wholeheartedly. Now that people are talking about it and dropping references in snippets, the story has morphed to the point that references now sound like there’s cat MEAT involved somehow. Which, for a restaurant, is not ideal, to put it mildly. My reaction to uncovering what started it all was “WTF? That’s it? Who cares?” and you’re right, the damage and scrambling all rests in how Chipotle’s handled it. First rule of thumb? Never start out lying!

    Reply
  2. Joey

    So basically what you are trying to say with this article is that you didn’t watch this unfold and just thought you’d comment on it later? You are right, Chipotle totally mishandled it, but it would be hard to ignore the HUNDREDS (not handful) of wall posts. Also, they were not trying to punish Chipotle, they were trying to punish this Chipotle employee for being insensitive. It didn’t matter where she worked, the end result they were seeking was that she
    A) Feared for her life
    B) Lost her job

    They may have accomplished both. I watched the debacle unfold on the website that the plot was created on. This was a very coordinated attack, not just a few cat loving hippies in Temple, Texas.

    Reply
  3. JL

    I think it is worth mentioning that the store manager in question also posted on her public facebook profile – which lists Chipotle as her employer – something to the effect of “all the stupid people are coming to chipotle today”. If I were the company, that would be a fireable offense. The cat death/laughing about it makes her a bitch, yes, but the fact that she lists herself as an employee and then dumps on the customers in public is a big no-no. She should’ve either:
    1) Made her page private
    2) Not linked to her employer

    Also, the “omghacked” thing is laughable. Who would really believe that? Hackers spam when they access a facebook account.. they don’t carry on conversations in english and spanish with your friends on your wall.

    12/13/10 was a terrible day/learning experience for poor Ms. Rivas.

    Reply
  4. Dan Greenfield/PR+MKTG Camp

    Great post – beyond the way that this incident was handled, your post points to the extreme challenges of the personal impacting the brand.

    The overlap of the professional and personal in the connected world can add an extra layer of authenticity to your messaging. It can help brands reach a wider, richer network of users. But maintaining clear boundaries is difficult for companies to enforce, can undermine the brand, and underscores the importance of internal controls, standards and practices.

    Reply
  5. Stanley P. Katchowski

    Chipotle killed fluffy. Sweet, innocent kitten who never wanted anything, except a warm lap to snuggle on. They killed her. And fed her to us, like some soylent green additive, and lied about it.

    Reply
  6. Mike Handy

    The correct course of action for the Chipotle team was a non-response. Adjusting the wall setting if the issue started to become predominant. The final move if the issue was still live after a week would have been to issue a statement… the statement would state “Employees of Chipotle are free to post messages on personal Social Media accounts ie facebook, twitter, or blogs. These messages do not reflect the values or opinions of Chipotle.”

    They probably don’t have a Social Media flow chart but I work for several large brands and this is specifically defined for each. New Category: Super epic fail!

    Reply
  7. Shel Holtz

    I’ll take issue with one of your observations, and even that’ll be a qualified criticism. You chided Chipotle for posting its response three times. Now, the response was poor and shouldn’t have been posted at all. But if a company is going to respond to a situation like this, responding once won’t do. I’ve been hitting the “older posts” link repeatedly and not getting anywhere near the beginning of the thread. To assume the people who matter to you (stakeholders and constituent audiences) who are visiting the wall will see that response is ridiculous.

    When The Mayo Clinic wall was campaigned over a doctor’s comment, the Clinic’s team posted its response (which was a good one) multiple times to ensure that it was seen. It was an effective approach. They also moved the discussion to a discussion board on Facebook, which also was effective.

    Chipotle’s problem isn’t with what they did. It’s with how they did it.

    One comment for Mike Handy, too. I’d adjust that suggested statement to note that employees are free to post messages that comply with company policies. Few employees at any company are free to post whatever they want. Just ask the two employees fired from a BC auto dealership, and whose firing was upheld by the BC Labor Relations Board.

    Reply
  8. Mikal

    Opinions are like arm pits; every one has two and they both stink! Time is money people! Every second you post to this zaniness, you are doing nothing more than slicing valuable seconds of your time-limited life! Wow! Majoring in the minors! Really people? Wow!

    Reply
  9. joe

    yep – What did the manager do that had anything to do with the company? Maybe your company should fire you for making stupid comments.

    Reply
  10. Sam

    If Chipotles nationwide are anything like the one I worked at they’ll likely revert to the “give something away for free” tactic. Ours (Madison, WI) has an arbitrary “free burrito day” in September, and will give burritos away for any occasion besides. It’s Halloween? Free burrito! Isaac Asimov’s birthday? Free burrito! Don’t feel like paying? Free burrito!

    Reply
  11. Lynn

    Joe – you ask “what did the manager doe that had anything to do with the company?”

    Apparently you’ve been snoozing at the keyboard. She posted on her PUBLIC fbook page (which also lists her as a manager of Chipotle):
    “It must be national stupid people day out…i swear they all decided to come to chipotle!!!”

    Reply
  12. JR

    Chipotle is just Starbuck’s with refried beans instead of burnt coffee beans. Typical corporate nonsense. Chipotle loves to act like they’re all hip and counterculture but only a sucker would actually believe it.

    Reply
  13. BS

    WOW. another classic example of a company that just decided to DO TOO MUCH. Amazing find.
    Update: On the Chipotle Hates Cats page, tons of people say they’ve now been banned from commenting anything on the Chipotle fb page. Nice consumer outreach, chipotle.

    Reply
  14. SteveO

    This reminds me of another incident where a man living in a free country decided to burn some items which were lawfully obtained, in public. Assuming he had obtained the proper permits, burning and assembly etc. should it have mattered that he was a pastor and that he claimed God spoke to him and instructed him to burn a bunch of Qurans. Instead of labeling him a whacko who was operating within his rights as a citizen of the U.S., the media had to make it a headline, which drew the U.S. government into the fray and almost create an international incident out of it. We’re sending the wrong message to the world about freedom? No?
    This cat story is par for the course, much like the athlete/anyone who denies wrongdoing (e.g. taking performance enhancing drugs) only to eventually be found guilty.
    We need to interrupt these dumbasses (men & women) during their weepy apologies, boo hoo, and really put them in their place for wasting our time.
    Thanks for pointing this out. I get a chuckle over the fact that “all people can be idiots”, some more than others, even me.
    Though why does Chipotle have a Facebook page in the first place? Why not a blog on their own domain which they can have more control over? Talk about tripping over dollars to save a dime.

    Reply
  15. Matt

    Wow – what an absolute disaster Chipotle created for themselves. I’m not a fan of their food and now I’m not a fan of them as a company either. I agree with Mike Handy, Chipolte should have made a blanket statement distancing themselves from the personal issue and said they were looking into the event internally.

    If you keep throwing gasoline on the fire then it’s going to keep burning…

    Reply
  16. KristenW

    Wow, this has bad idea and lack of strategy written all over it. This is exactly as you stated a great example of a poorly handled social media crisis. Which of course, it is only a crisis because they made it that way!

    Thanks for the play by play. Def tweeting this now!

    Reply
  17. Jim

    I am with you, I just don’t see why Chipotle’s Social Media team would even touch this one. It makes no sense. But what makes even less sense is that they tried to cover it up.

    Reply
  18. Monex

    Chipotle should have combined their Facebook Page with their Places pages. Chipotle rolling everything into one Facebook page would have made more sense for running a large national campaign like this.

    Reply
  19. Lena

    “If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.” – Don Draper

    Where is Don Draper when you need him? :)

    Reply
  20. Pablo Edwards

    There is no way that you can take responsibility for everything you employees do… If you choose to do that, or cover for them, you are opening yourself up to a lot of lawsuit possibilities.

    Reply
  21. Hank Guadalupe

    Ever since we saw that animated video with Willie Nelson singing Cold Play’s “The Scientist,”we’ve been Googling like crazy to try to separate the facts from the feel-good (and extremely effective) marketing.

    Even before the video came out, critics have questioned whether Chipotle’s ingredients are really healthier and more sustainably-produced as claimed. Check out : http://www.estanciabeef.com/news/chipotle-grass-fed-beef

    Reply

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