Chipotle: A Study in Good PR & How to Promote Diversity

Chipotle & support of the Boy Scouts of America

Last week restaurant chain Chipotle came under fire for supporting the Boy Scouts of America in Utah through corporate sponsorship. While the sponsorship in and of itself was routine, the message it sent – when compared with their own internal anti-discrimination and diversity policies – showed a pattern of contradictory statements and beliefs. When journalists discovered Chipotle would be sponsoring the Utah Scout-O-Rama (the annual fundraising gala for the Great Salt Lake Council – the largest and most vocal voice in the BSA opposing LGBT inclusion), a media feeding frenzy began. Even worse for Chipotle, the sponsorship directly violated the company’s own published, highly-public policy against sponsoring groups that discriminate.

In an article in The Salt Lake Tribune, Chipotle company spokesman Chris Arnold defended the hypocritical sponsorship, saying “In Salt Lake, the Scouting institution is very strong, and it is our chance to connect with customers in that community.” He went on to note that they “would like to see [the Boy Scouts] in a place that’s more inclusive than where they are now.” Arnold – in a knowing admission – owned up to the fact that Chipotle would be sponsoring an organization that operated contrary to their policies because they wanted to connect with customers more effectively (read: it’s about the money, not the humanity).

In responding to several organizations that reached out to question the hypocritical move, Arnold said:

We have built our brand largely by reaching out to people on a grassroots level and have done that working with a variety of community groups around the country, including school groups, youth sports, pride events, music festivals, food events and farmers’ markets, among many others. Our intention in doing that isn’t to endorse the policies of those groups, but rather to reach individuals (in this case the scouts themselves) through groups that are important in a given community. These decisions are made by a team of people around the country with the intention of connecting our restaurants with people in those communities. 

That being said, this decision is not consistent with our own values, and we have used this opportunity to reinforce those values with the team that makes those decisions for us.

Except, they didn’t reinforce those values since actions speak louder than words. In planning to provide any sort of sponsorship, Chipotle demonstrated that their bottom line was more important than corporate (human) values regarding diversity, discrimination, and fairness.

As the story of Chipotle’s hypocrisy went national, more and more people took to social media to shame the company for its policies and positions in the BSA matter. The PR disaster hearkens back to the Applebees affair a few weeks back in how one local incident created a nightmare for the company at large. Unlike Applebees though, Chipotle put an immediate end to the incident by reversing course and replying to virtually all social media messages on the matter by saying:

In addition to their Twitter message to the world at large, Arnold issued the following email the day after it all hit the fan:

By way of follow up, we have terminated our sponsorship of this event. 

As I mentioned yesterday, community support decisions like this are made in a decentralized way and this one was inconsistent with our own policy. We believed that terminating the sponsorship and remaining consistent with our policy was the right thing to do, and we have reinforced our policy with the team that makes these decisions to try to prevent similar issues in the future.

The complete 180 degree turn in publicized opinion is both smart and telling of how social media and journalistic reporting can affect even the smallest events now. Ten years ago, the BSA event probably would have been sponsored by Chipotle without much fanfare, and an online article or two may have attempted to publicly shame them without much immediate backlash. The advent of social media as a tool for people to make their political voices heard is up until now unprecedented in its effect and scope.

Any organization that’s cognizant of the modern sociopolitical effects that bad policy and poor PR (particularly social media) can have will continue to thrive; conversely, those organizations that continue to exist in a bubble – regarding their bottom line over the lives of their customers and employees – will be doomed to fail in the ever-changing, ever-connected world we’ve come to live in. Don’t believe me? Ask any of your friends or family what they think of the Applebees server incident. And then ask them about this Chipotle incident. Chances are, virtually every person will know and have an opinion on the former; many won’t have heard of the latter thanks in large part to effective use of social media, PR strategy, and a policy of holding diversity and equal rights above corporate profits.

Additionally, by holding to their corporate values that enshrine diversity, Chipotle hasn’t just avoided a PR disaster; they’ve garnered additional support in a community famous for word of mouth advertising, brand loyalty, and social media savviness. And through that negative-turned-positive experience, Chipotle (much like Starbucks) is learning that being culturally forward and having a health bottom line aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.


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