Waiter, there’s shrimp in my cereal

Proof's Josh Cobden explains why brands need to have (and stick to) a playbook for even the most bizarre of reputational crises.

By Josh Cobden

As a child, digging out the prize hidden in the box of cereal was a highlight. But last week, L.A.-based writer and comedian Jensen Karp says he got a different kind of prize when two shrimp tails tumbled into his morning bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

What should have been a shrimpy issue grew to a whale-sized crisis for General Mills.

The company’s initial response started off right: an empathetic acknowledgement, a promise to investigate and the offer of a voucher for a free replacement. Textbook de-escalation.

Then, inexplicably, the company pivoted to offence, suggesting that what Mr. Karp spotted was likely just baked cinnamon sugar, followed by a declarative statement from General Mills that this could not have happened in their facility. Mr. Karp, his now 100,000 Twitter followers and millions more on the Internet engrossed by the weird nature of the situation disagreed and accused the company of gaslighting. Criticism was swift and spicier than sriracha shrimp.

The plot has since thickened with hoax theories and allegations of Mr. Karp’s bad behavior beyond the breakfast table. But regardless of whether this crustacean chronicle is a fish tale or an actual catch, it provides yet another example of why every organization ought to have a communications playbook for predictable events that might jeopardize their reputation.

Yes, predictable. If you run an airline, a plane crash is possible, and if you make breakfast cereal, something gross might end up in a box. An organization must be prepared for all reputational threats, whether ones you can anticipate exactly or something like shrimp tails that come out of left field.

If you handle communications for a massive, institutional catering operation, you can predict what might happen if 10,000 people eat tainted hotdogs at a ballgame, or a strike shutters 100 university cafeterias. But what if your CEO gets caught on video kicking his dog, like Des Hague, CEO of top food concessionaire Centerplate did in 2014? Here, a strong moral compass, self-awareness and hopefully an engrained set of corporate values guides the response.

Equally important is to run crisis simulations to see if the playbook works, and with all important players. When planning how an organization might respond to a data breach, failing to involve the IT department might overlook crucial variations on how a breach might unfold. Crisis simulations should be observed and critiqued by people outside the immediate team who can bring perspective, and have the authority or guts to call bullshit when something sounds like corporatespeak. Brad Ross, former head of communications at the Toronto Transit Commission earned praise and a following on social media for the way he skillfully responded to complaints and issues. Did the TTC have a playbook? Of course. But Mr. Ross mastered the ability to gauge when empathy, humour, facts or even a stern rebuke was the best course of action.

Back to Shrimpgate: General Mills appeared to have thrown their playbook overboard, perhaps due to the bizarre nature of the situation, and it had the effect of pouring chum into a sea of sharks.

What should they have done? Exactly what their playbook likely says: apologize, empathize, neutralize – all privately. This is all most people want, including, it seems, Mr. Karp, and it probably would have made this problem go away. And if it doesn’t? Even someone itching for a public scrap on Twitter usually loses interest when their target sticks to the high road.

But General Mills didn’t stick with the playbook, and here they are. So, what should they do now? A thorough investigation might satisfy any internal concerns about how this happened, and at the very least, a logical explanation could help their defence if things continue to escalate. And if Mr. Karp’s allegations do end up being a fish tale, the court of public opinion will dispense swift justice. In the meantime, General Mills should revisit, rewrite and recommit to the playbook.

And maybe bring back the prize in the box.

Josh Cobden is EVP of Proof Strategies.