By Jeff Gaunt, Senior Director, Crisis & Reputation

When a comedian found a pair of (alleged) shrimp tails in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch this week, it was exactly the sort of made-for-Twitter moment that aspiring corporate social media managers will be studying for years to come.

It had all the ingredients of a viral reputational crisis: a beloved brand, pictures of cinnamon-coated crustaceans, and a likeable and credible accuser who happened to be married to a 90s TV star.

Even if General Mills had done everything by the PR handbook, they still may have come out of this with shrimp on their face (assuming word ever got out in the first place). Twitter has a way of turning even minor missteps into headline news, particularly when it comes to gross food contamination stories.

It would be less surprising to see a small regional brand fumble this PR ball, but even Fortune 500 CPG giants don’t always play the hand properly when presented with what should be a fairly straightforward consumer engagement. And in failing to follow some basic crisis PR rules, the company made an unfortunate problem that much worse.

Here is what the company could have – and in some cases, still can – do differently:

  1. Understand the moment. Too often, companies fail to realize they are on the precipice of a reputational crisis until it is too late. If something is essential to what you do – say, a food company ensuring its food is safe to eat – think twice before you say anything at all. Anticipate what might happen next. Play out the scenarios before hitting send.
  2. Think about your audience. If your customer or client comes to you with a problem, put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself, “what would I expect in this situation?” If your words or actions fall short of that expectation, you are asking for trouble. You will avoid a lot of problems if you respond like the shrimp was in YOUR cereal.
  3. Don’t get over your skis. An issue is decidedly less complex to manage than a crisis. Whether you’re facing a cyberattack, or (allegedly) sold a contaminated product, it can take time to determine what’s true and what’s not. Don’t jump to the conclusion that the shrimp tail is accumulated cinnamon sugar because it’s the outcome you’d like to believe. And whatever you do, don’t offer that as rationale unless you have the receipts to prove it. Even then, be tactful in your response.
  4. Treat the customer with respect. If someone is coming to you with a problem, respond with care and concern. Let them know you take their issue seriously. Even if you think they are wrong, be empathetic. If you were the one who was wrong, don’t be afraid to apologize. There are ways to say you are sorry that are authentic AND will be ok with your attorney. (Ask a crisis expert if you need help.)
  5. If you are making a claim, prove it. General Mills appears to have publicly backed away from the claim that the (alleged) shrimp tails were accumulated cinnamon sugar. But they have doubled down on the fact that the contamination did not happen at their facility. They have said they are confident, but they have yet to offer a source for that confidence. If you know something to be true – and people are questioning your truthfulness – describe in detail how you come to your conclusion. Don’t just assume people will believe you.

There’s rarely a silver bullet when it comes to a reputational crisis. There are plenty of things you should do, like be honest, be respectful, be transparent, be timely in your communication. But sometimes, your best hope is damage mitigation, not full-on avoidance. You either give a little at the beginning when it’s an issue or pay with heavy interest later when it has become a crisis. If you are struggling to read those tea leaves in the moment, put down the pen and call someone who handles these types of situations for a living.

Learn more about Lambert’s Crisis & Reputation, Consumer Product Goods practices or connect with us here.