What Went Wrong With the Cinnamon Toast Crunch Shrimp Fiasco

What Went Wrong With the Cinnamon Toast Crunch Shrimp Fiasco

April 22, 2021

From Jensen Karp’s large Twitter following, to his high profile connections, to his last name being Karp, to his famous wife’s last name being Fishel (we could go on…), the Cinnamon Crunch Shrimp fiasco was poised with potential to be the perfect storm.

The Back Story

If you need the full run-down on this situation, you can find that here.

But basically, Jensen Karp took to Twitter in March claiming that he found shrimp tails and what *looked* like mouse droppings in his Family-Pack of Cinnamon Toast Crunch from a local Costco. ????

Quick note to brands before we get into the nitty gritty: Of course, every customer is important. But… well… famous customers with large Twitter followings may warrant an extra bit of thought and planning. After all, every brand longs for celebrities to tweet about them and for the chance to “go viral” on social media, but not like this!

When any customer—but especially a celebrity—shares a shockingly negative experience online, there’s potential for a PR nightmare. Perhaps the most shocking part of this story, though, is that a brand as large as General Mills didn’t have a PR crisis team prepared.

In 2021, people expect prompt responses to their messages and questions. And we get it— the last thing a brand should do is respond too quickly to a negative review, with risk of emotions flaring. But there’s a fine line between taking the time to think of a professional response and well… taking so long that people become angry.

In this case, it’s not that the brand didn’t respond quickly, because they did. However, the replies were sent by lower-level employees who clearly didn’t have the tools necessary to properly handle the delicate situation. Higher-ups, on the other hand, seemed disconnected and unconcerned for far too long, allowing the whole issue to spiral out of control.

Let’s look at a few lessons from this event.

What Exactly Went Wrong?

It was obvious by the messages that this whole situation was initially (and poorly) handled by social media managers. So for many people, it was too little too late, when General Mills CEO Jeff Harmening finally appeared on CNBC later and said, ‘Based on the information we have right now, it is highly unlikely this occurred at a General Mills facility… So right now, we’re in the process of working with that consumer to try to figure out, kind of, what happened between when it left our docks and when he opened it.”

Here are the biggest mistakes:

1. The Brand Voice & Tone

Tone is a very big deal. This is true across the board in life but especially on social media. And the tone of all the replies to Karp was just… not right for the situation.

It seemed the Cinnamon Toast Crunch employees used the same exact tone and response to someone finding shrimp parts in their breakfast cereal as they would to someone upset that there wasn’t enough cinnamon for their taste. The response was definitely too light-hearted and the resolution they provided (another free box of cereal) was definitely not appropriate here either.

2. They Minimized Karp’s Complaint

At many points the employee(s) seemed to minimize Karp’s concerns, even telling him that they decided it was not shrimp. Do we even have to elaborate on how this was a mistake? ???? Probably not–and the result was exactly what you would expect. Karp was so upset that he continued to further investigate the box, and that’s when he found the alleged rat droppings. If they would have handled his complaint with care, he may not have kept digging (and posting). As a small business, how can you apply that? Always take complaints seriously even if you suspect they aren’t valid.

3. Social Media Managers Were Made to Act as Crisis Managers

One of the biggest lessons here is that social media managers should not be required to handle high-level complaints. And one of the biggest mistakes in this case was the amount of communication that happened before the situation was properly escalated. It’s important to train and empower your social media managers to quickly escalate cases that are clearly out of the ordinary or more serious, and then create a clear pathway and line of communication for them to do that. It seems like even Jensen Karp intuitively knew this:

How to Get it Right

1. Have Brand Voice Guidelines & Protocols for Different Situations

The last thing you want when you just ate rat poop is someone to seem super aloof or light-hearted in their response. The same is true for all sorts of situations your customers could be messaging your company about via email or social media. So, set guidelines for how your customer service or social media teams should respond to certain concerns. Or, have a plan in place to quickly handle more complicated situations from a higher level. Which brings us to…

2. Have a Plan to Quickly Escalate Emergency Situations

We recommend establishing a detailed crisis plan that is well-known to anyone who works on your company’s social media platforms. There needs to be a quick and clear pathway for employees to take when needing to alert the right people higher up in the organization who are poised to handle more potentially serious PR problems.

3. Have a PR Expert On Staff or On Call

PR can be expensive, but so is a PR nightmare. We think it’s a good idea to do your research and create a relationship with a good PR person/team, so you can utilize them quickly on an as-needed basis. Even if you don’t regularly need PR, have someone on call for times of crisis, and be ready to listen to and implement their expertise. Team Tangible loves that all of our ongoing clients feel comfortable to message us the minute they have a concern, so we can provide professional PR guidance on a small business level.

Brands Who Got it Right

To end on a positive note, we’re sharing our favorite potential PR fiasco that we think was handled quickly and immaculately: Enter CrockPot.

We don’t know if CrockPot had the PR team of the century on-hand or if they just had someone on staff who was smart enough to act as quickly as possible, but when (spoiler alert) what looked like a Crock Pot caught on fire and ultimately led to the death of one of television’s most beloved fathers on This is Us, the brand acted quickly on Twitter.

While this situation had the potential to crack even well-resourced brands, and most companies when faced with something like this could have been tempted to take a defensive stand (much like Cinnamon Toast Crunch), Crock Pot created a #CrockPotIsInnocent hashtag campaign that was handled extremely well. It was serious, but also fun. The brand also shared real statistics and safety information about their products, assuring their audience that:

  1. That no CrockPot has ever caught fire in the history of the company
  2. They perform extensive safety testing to ensure that they will not catch on fire
  3. That they will continue to test to make sure that it never does happen

They got their loyal CrockPot fans (and we all know some CrockPot enthusiasts…) to fight on their behalf using the hashtag. It was extremely well done and just fun enough, because after all, it’s television, and as a brand you don’t want to come across as TOO serious or TOO out of touch.

In fact, we did some research and it turns out that the Shorty Awards agree with us and even awarded them with first place for “Best Hashtag, Real Time Response.”

Final Thoughts

Every company needs a PR plan, even if you don’t have a PR team. And if you have the money, hire a good PR team. Otherwise, employees may be left winging it in a crisis and well, we’ve seen how that turns out.

In the age of the internet, even if something like this is a hoax, it still has the potential to ruin a brand depending on their response to it. When brands fail to be calm or empathetic, they can violate the trust of their followers and the price they pay can be big. This goes for both large and small businesses.

Your business may not be as large-scaled as General Mills, so maybe you think you don’t have to worry about something going viral… until a local influencer or a well-connected mom has something negative to say. Trust us. And make a plan!

If you need help, we’ve got you covered.

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