Brummette, John & Fussell Sisco, Hilary (2018). Holy guacamole! Framing and the Chipotle contamination issue. Journal of Communication Management, 22(3), 280-295.

In 2015, Chipotle was one of the fastest growing restaurant chains in the U.S. when it was struck by six outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. Chipotle’s newfound success was now shadowed by its ongoing struggles to identify the source of its contamination issues and while sustaining momentum with its customers. This study analyzes the networks that initially form around an organizational crisis and identifies the most predominant frames communicated by the traditional media and other social media users in the wake of that crisis.

Through the systematic analysis of 3,000 tweets extracted on December 21, 2015, this study utilized the social network analysis method to map and measure how crisis information spreads through social media as well as a content analysis to identify the type of frames being communicated online immediately following a crisis. The data were collected during a 24-hour period because it represents the “golden hours […] when every crisis creates an information gap” (Chen, 2009, p. 189), “the peak period of activity for [stakeholder] responses” (Coombs and Holladay, 2014, p. 48), and information gathering (Taylor and Perry, 2005), as well as a critical stage in which the crisis receives the most intensive coverage (Li, 2007).

Key Findings

  • The media were the most active and influential sharers of information following Chipotle’s E. coli crisis.
  • Information shared by the media shaped the creation of frames around the incident, which focused on the hazard components involved in the crisis and the outrage of the organization’s publics.
  • Stakeholders framed the situation as an issue of policy due to poor food handling procedures.

Implications for Practice
This study reaffirms the important presence of traditional media as the originators of information in a crisis. The findings demonstrate how Twitter can serve as a framing tool for an organization’s stakeholders. Communication managers and professionals can use the methods in this study to gauge public sentiment and obtain information that can be used to shape their consequent crisis management efforts.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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