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Crisis Communications: What companies can learn from the Cinnamon Toast Crunch fiasco

By Kylie McMullan and Paul Nixey

You may have heard that recently a high-profile Twitter user (fun fact: he’s married to the actress that played Topanga on Boy Meets World) tweeted alleging that he had found shrimp tails in a box of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. As often happens in this day and age, his tweets went viral and were turned into a plethora of memes and the story was even picked up in the New York Times.

The story has since been called into question by some but from a crisis communications perspective it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or not. What matters is the public’s perception of the company’s quality and safety of their products.

There are some key lessons that companies can learn about crisis communications, particularly ones that play out on social. Here are three important takeaways from this incident that all organizations can learn from:

1. Social media managers are not crisis experts

The Twitter user said he originally sent a form submission complaint to General Mills before posting a picture on Twitter. It seems like part of the problem was that the company tried to let this play out on social media by making a statement the there was no possibility of cross contamination with shrimp—but it quickly escalated out of their ability to control the narrative. The statement didn’t let people know that the company was taking it seriously or concerned for its consumers safety.

Organizations need to have clear processes and procedures for escalating issues on social media to the experts. In these situations, you also don’t have the luxury of time. On social, things happen fast and don’t always fit nicely into the timeline you’ve set for investigations or responses. Having a holding statement that lets the public know you are taking this seriously and you’re on it can help you buy time.

2. Photos are powerful

Part of the reason this story gained so much traction is because of the yuck factor of seeing photos with shrimp tails mixed in with morning cereal pieces. Social media provides a perfect vehicle for sharing photos and videos, which can cause issues to escalate into crises quickly. It also brings out an emotional and even visceral response that cannot be combatted with corporate speak or facts.

In their initial statement the organization said it was accumulated cinnamon sugar, which felt like it was asking the public to distrust their own eyes. An old crisis saying is to “show people you care before you share what you know”.

3. Direct messages will be made public

Another reason this story stayed in people’s social feeds is because the tweeter posted the company’s private messages to him and his dissatisfaction with them. While there was nothing wrong with the messages necessarily, they did put unrealistic expectations on the consumer, like asking him to take his cereal box to his local police station, and they felt out of touch with the online mood. In these instances, being human, is important. So is assuming that every private message will be made public.

These types of issues and crises are only going to increase for brands as social media platforms grow and fragment. Being prepared by having the right plan and the right team in place is key. While for many of us stories of shrimp tails in cereal boxes is a weird and fun distraction on social, for organizations it can mean real reputational damage and financial implications.

Kylie McMullan is a communications strategy expert and the co-author of Canadian PR for the Real World. Paul Nixey is the principal of Nixey Communications and is a political strategist and crisis communications expert. This article originally appeared in The Georgia Straight on March 25, 2021.