Crisis Reflection 1

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Crisis Reflection 1: The Taco Bell E. coli outbreak — calming public fears during
food-borne illness scares

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January 10, 2007
Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Chris Cobb

Instructions:
о Write a short 2-3-page essay reflecting on the article. You will want to

reflect on the issue at hand using facets of crisis communication you have
learned in the course,

о You will be graded on content and how well you understand the course
material, reasoning and how well you amalgamate the material,

о Proper grammar and mechanics is crucial and will be a part of your grade,
о You will submit your paper to the Turnitin.com dropbox link within

blackboard.

You know you’re in trouble when you become the punch line for late- night comedians.

“You folks been to Taco Bell lately?” chuckled David Letterman in early December.
“They have a wonderful new menu item, it’s the ‘Taco Apocalypto.’

“But you know,” he added with a twist of the knife, “Taco Bell’s slogan for a long, long
time was ‘Think outside the bun.’ They have changed the slogan now, [it’s]: ‘Look
outside for the ambulance.’”

Jay Leno had a variation on the same theme: “Taco Bell has had to close several
restaurants because an outbreak of E. coli has made customers sick. As a result, Taco Bell
is changing their slogan from ‘Think outside the bun’ to ‘Puke outside the store.’”

Comedy aside, the E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell outlets in the Northeast United States
sickened 71 people and came on the heels of last fall’s spinach scare in which 204 people
throughout the United States and Canada became sick and three — two elderly women in
Wisconsin and Nebraska and a 2-year-old from Idaho — died.

The Taco Bell outbreak, which the company originally and incorrectly blamed on green
onions, was caused by lettuce grown on farms in central California. The outbreak began
during the last week of November and was officially deemed over by the Federal Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) on Dec. 14.

For the fast-food outlet, it was more than two weeks of frenetic damage control during
which the company followed a fairly conventional strategy. The company put President
Greg Creed front and center and launched a simultaneous print and TV campaign to
reassure customers that it was doing all it could to correct the situation.

In the early days of the crisis, however, the company seemed uncertain about how to
react. It had closed, cleaned and reopened several restaurants before it knew the source of
the E.coli contamination. It had also removed green onions from all 5,800 of its
restaurants without knowing for certain whether the suspected produce was the cause.

“Our approach to this entire situation has been to respond as quickly as we can and
provide information to our customers and media as quickly as it became available,” Taco
Bell’s PR director Rob Poetsch tells Tactics.

“When we first learned of the possible E.coli incident in one of our restaurants [on Nov.
30 in Middlesex County, N.J.] we immediately and voluntarily closed that restaurant and
began working closely with local health authorities. That strategy of responding quickly
and being open and transparent was our priority.”

On Dec. 4, shortly after the Middlesex County closure, Taco Bell voluntarily closed,
sanitized and restocked restaurants in New York.

“The health and safety of customers is our top priority,” Poetsch explains.

Poetsch defends his company’s decision to identify green onions as the likely E.coli
source and change produce suppliers before conclusive evidence was available. The
company had based those decisions on its own preliminary testing.

“We didn’t want to risk anyone else becoming ill,” he says. “Imagine if we had that
information and waited four or five days and the test results confirmed it and we hadn’t
taken action? All the action we took was clearly customer-centric and focused on food
safety. That was the driving force behind all our decisions and communications.”

Poetsch says being on the front lines in a situation where public relations and
communications are key to corporate survival has been a learning experience.

“We have been guided by a number of principles,” he says. “When you get information,
disclose it as quickly as possible to customers to build trust and be honest and open about
the situation from the get-go. Take action and be responsible – work with the authorities
to find a solution to make sure it doesn’t happen again to anyone.”

Food safety issues

Few, if any, PR professionals have more experience in food crisis situations than Gene
Grabowski, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Levick Strategic Communications
and formerly vice president of communications and marketing for the Grocery
Manufacturers of America, the world’s largest association of the food, beverage, and
consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry.

During last fall’s bagged spinach E.coli outbreak, he spearheaded the PR strategy for the
United Fresh Produce Association and River Ranch Fresh Foods.

“There are so many food safety issues now that it is safe to say that this is one big
running story,” says Grabowski. “We can measure and detect all kinds of food safety
issues that we couldn’t 30 years ago, and with the greater ability to measure, the more
things we’re going to find.”

Despite Grabowski’s assertion that the apparent increase in food-borne illness is the
result of better detection, he concedes that because of North America’s dependence on
fewer food sources — there are roughly 60 farms producing two-thirds of the food supply
— the impact of a food-related crisis is far greater than in the past.

“If there is an outbreak that emanates from one of those farms, you’re going to affect
more people,” he says. “One farm can infect a whole nation, but I do think that the food
critics, and food police, make a bit too much of the risk. Food is safer now than it’s ever
been.”

A former White House journalist, Grabowski says around-the-clock communications
from hundreds of potential sources has made crisis communications increasingly
challenging.

“The messages I’m giving to you require an open mind and a sense of understanding,” he
says. “Consumers who are frightened that their families may be at risk are not open-
minded. They want quick solutions. The second problem is journalism: There is a
premium on news that is alarming, entertaining and exciting and not a premium on stories
that are reflective and put things in perspective. The true weighing of facts is drowned out
by stories that emphasize risk.”

PR professionals involved in handling communications about the two E. coli outbreaks
have done as well as can be expected, says Grabowski.

“For the first few weeks of any crisis, there is a reaction ranging from mass hysteria to
widespread alarm,” he explains. “All the mothers and dads … know is that two or three
people have died, hundreds have been taken sick and, if you read the news stories, they
could be next.”

He says, “That’s 365 billion meals a year. There are about 400,000 food-borne illnesses a
year, which means that the chance of you being stricken by food-borne illness is pretty
slim. It’s hard to get that message out.” Key to calming public fears, says Grabowski is
getting specialists, scientists and other experts to deliver the message to the public. Then,
he says, PR pros have to seize the “teachable moment.”

“In the early stages, when all the alarm is happening, it’s very difficult to get a message
out about reasons,” he says. “But when fears have been allayed, and people begin
understanding better, then you have a teachable moment, but you have to seize that
moment quickly because the door opens and shuts very quickly.”

In 1982, before mass use of the Internet, e-mail, blogs, video-sharing platforms and the
myriad of other rapid-fire communications methods took hold, Peter Morrissey was part
of the Johnson & Johnson PR team that handled the now seminal case of the Tylenol
tampering crisis.

In what has now become standard PR practice, J&J’s main spokesman during the crisis
was Jim Burke, chairman and CEO, who held a series of nationwide satellite video news
conferences. This was considered a leading-edge method at the time of helping to soothe
public fears.

There are similarities in the Taco Bell-Tylenol cases, says Morrissey, now a
communications professor at Boston University’s College of Communication.

“Both are about credibility, trust and leadership, and those absolutely apply today as
much as they did then,” he says. “Technology has changed, and the means of
communication is faster, but you still have to show leadership and decisiveness and do
the right thing quickly — regardless of the consequences.”

It was Burke’s public leadership that got Tylenol through the crisis, adds Morrissey.
“He was always asking himself how to do the right thing by his customers,” he says.
“And he moved with dispatch. It was a big deal, and a bold approach at that time.”

But speed ofinformation dissemination, and increased fear in society, makes situations
such as the E. Coli scares more problematic for companies such as Taco Bell.

“We are in a period of higher uncertainty, so today when something like this happens,
you need decisive leadership,” says Morrissey. “You need a plan in place if anything
should happen and work through the details of how you’re going to respond because
otherwise, in the line of fire, you’re not going to respond in a reasonable, intelligent way.
Today, things happen too quickly to allow time for a forensic review of the facts before
responding.”

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Crisis Reflection Rubric

The following rubric will be used to evaluate your writing sample. When preparing your document, please
follow the Five C’s of Effective Writing. Make your writing: Clear, Concise, Correct, Courteous, and
Comprehensive.

Excellent Good Acceptable Unacceptable Score

Content
(20 points
possible)

The essay illustrates
exemplary understanding
of the course material by
thoroughly and correctly:
(1) addressing the relevant
content; (2) identifying
and explaining all of the
key concepts/ideas; (3)
using correct terminology;
(4) explaining the
reasoning behind key
points/claims; and (5)
(where necessary or
useful) substantiating
points with several
accurate and original
examples.
(20 points)

The essay illustrates
solid understanding of
the course material by
correctly: (1) addressing
most of the relevant
content; (2) identifying
and explaining most of
the key concepts/ideas;
(3) using correct
terminology; (4)
explaining the reasoning
behind most of the key
points/claims; and (5)
(where necessary or
useful) substantiating
some points with
accurate examples.
(15 points)

The essay illustrates
rudimentary understanding
of the course material by:
(1) mentioning, but not
fully explaining, the
relevant content; (2)
identifying some of the key
concepts/ideas (though
failing to fully or accurately
explain many of them); (3)
using terminology, though
sometimes inaccurately or
inappropriately; and (4)
incorporating some key
claims/points, but failing to
explain the reasoning
behind them (or doing so
inaccurately).
(10 points)

The essay illustrates poor
understanding of the
course material by (1)
failing to address or
incorrectly addressing the
relevant content; (2)
failing to identify or
inaccurately
explaining/defining key
concepts/ideas; (3)
ignoring or incorrectly
explaining key
points/claims and the
reasoning behind them;
and (4) incorrectly or
inappropriately using
terminology.
(5 points)

Reasoning
(20 points
possible)

The essay reflects expert
reasoning by:
(1) synthesizing material;
(2) making connections
between relevant
ideas/claims/points; (3)
presenting an insightful
and thorough evaluation
of the relevant issue or
problem; (4) identifying
and discussing important
nuances in the relevant
material; and (5)
identifying and discussing
key assumptions and/or
implications.
(20 points)

The essay reflects fairly
strong reasoning by:
(1) synthesizing material,
(2) making appropriate
connections between
some of the key
ideas/claims/points; (3)
accurately evaluating the
issue/problem; and (4)
identifying ad discussing
key assumptions and/or
implications.
(15 points)

The essay reflects basic
reasoning by:
(1) synthesizing some of
the material, though
remains vague and
undeveloped; (2) making a
few connections between
ideas/claims/points, but
ignoring or inaccurately
connecting others; (3)
evaluating the
issue/problem at a very
basic/superficial level; and
(4) ignoring assumptions
and implications.
(10 points)

The essay reflects
substandard or poor
reasoning by: (1) failing to
synthesize the material or
doing so inaccurately; (2)
failing to make
connections between
ideas/claims/points or
doing so inaccurately; and
(3) failing to evaluate the
issue or problem.
(5 points)

Writing,
Grammar
and
Mechanics
(10 points
possible)

The essay is clear, and
concise as a result of: (1)
appropriate and precise
use of terminology; (2)
absence of tangents and
coherence of thoughts;
and (3) logical
organization of ideas and
thoughts. (4) complete
sentences, free of spelling
errors and uses correct
grammar, (5) follows
correct formatting style,
(6) falls between the
minimum and maximum
page requirement.
(10 points)

The essay is mostly clear
as a result of: (1)
appropriate use of
terminology and minimal
vagueness; (2) minimal
number of tangents and
lack of repetition; and (3)
fairly good organization
(4) complete sentences,
few spelling errors and
grammar mistakes, (5)
follows correct
formatting style with
minimal mistakes, (6)
falls between the
minimum and maximum
page requirement.
(5 points)

The essay is often unclear
and difficult to follow due
to: (1) some inappropriate
terminology and/or vague
language; (2) ideas
sometimes being
fragmented, wondering
and/or repetitive; and (3)
poor organization. (4)
incomplete sentences, has
spelling errors and uses
acceptable grammar, (5)
barely follows correct
formatting style, (6) does
not fall between the
minimum and maximum
page requirement.
(3 points)

The essay does not
communicate ideas/points
clearly due to: (1)
inappropriate use of
terminology and vague
language; (2) reliance on
disjointed and
incomprehensible
thoughts and clauses; and
(3) lack of recognizable
organization. (4) no
sentence structure, many
spelling errors and
unacceptable grammar, (5)
does not follow correct
formatting style, (6) does
not fall between the
minimum and maximum
page requirement.
(0 points)

Total /50
Evaluation Criteria

Outstanding: (90-100)
The essay/paper demonstrates superior application of communication concepts and principles
outlined in the readings and exercises. The assignment does not contain errors in content,
reasoning, writing, grammar and mechanics.
Above Average: (80-89)
The essay/paper demonstrates above average application of communication concepts and
principles outlined in the readings and exercises. The assignment has a few minor content,
reasoning, writing, grammar and mechanics.
Satisfactory: (70-79)
The essay/paper demonstrates satisfactory application of communication concepts and
principles outlined in the readings and exercises. The assignment has a moderate number of
errors in content, reasoning, writing, grammar and mechanics.
Poor: (1-69)
The essay/paper has an inconsistent application of communication concepts and principles
outlined in the readings and exercises and/or has frequent and serious errors in content,
reasoning, writing, grammar and mechanics.
Incomplete: (0)
The essay/paper was not submitted before the due date and/or was not completed according
to the published instructions.

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Summary

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    manually: 1

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Detailed Report

Rule Name Status Description

Passed

Passed

Passed

Passed

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Passed

Needs manual check

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Passed

Passed

Passed

Passed

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Passed

Passed

Passed

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Passed

Passed

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Passed

Passed

Passed

Passed

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Passed

Passed

Passed

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Passed Appropriate nesting

Document
Accessibility permission flag Accessibility permission flag must be set
Image-only PDF Document is not image-only PDF
Tagged PDF Document is tagged PDF
Logical Reading Order Passed manually Document structure provides a logical reading order
Primary language Text language is specified
Title Document title is showing in title bar
Bookmarks Bookmarks are present in large documents
Color contrast Document has appropriate color contrast
Page Content
Tagged content All page content is tagged
Tagged annotations All annotations are tagged
Tab order Tab order is consistent with structure order
Character encoding Reliable character encoding is provided
Tagged multimedia All multimedia objects are tagged
Screen flicker Page will not cause screen flicker
Scripts No inaccessible scripts
Timed responses Page does not require timed responses
Navigation links Navigation links are not repetitive
Forms
Tagged form fields All form fields are tagged
Field descriptions All form fields have description
Alternate Text
Figures alternate text Figures require alternate text
Nested alternate text Alternate text that will never be read
Associated with content Alternate text must be associated with some content
Hides annotation Alternate text should not hide annotation
Other elements alternate text Other elements that require alternate text
Tables
Rows TR must be a child of Table, THead, TBody, or TFoot
TH and TD TH and TD must be children of TR
Headers Tables should have headers
Regularity Tables must contain the same number of columns in each row and rows in each column
Summary Tables must have a summary
Lists
List items LI must be a child of L
Lbl and LBody Lbl and LBody must be children of LI
Headings
Appropriate nesting

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