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A Tasty Reputation Recipe for the Cinnamon Toast Crunch Debacle

by Howard Fencl, Crisis Communications

If you’re of my vintage, when you were a little kid, you couldn’t wait for mom to get home on grocery shopping day so you could tear into a new box of breakfast cereal loaded with enough sugar to make months of payments on your dentist’s vacation home for one reason: the cheesy toy tucked into the very bottom of the box.

Those days are long gone, as are the X-Ray Specs, Sea Monkeys and Monkees flicker rings I excavated from Frosted Flakes, Super Sugar Crisp and Cap N’ Crunch, to name just a few favorites.

But a true surprise premium appeared on Monday, March 22, in a cereal aficionado’s box of General Mills Cinnamon Toast Crunch – a premium with a crunch that was neither cinnamon-y or toasty – in the form of shrimp tail exoskeletons. Jensen Karp (yes, the guy discovering the shrimp is named Karp) tweeted at General Mills’ Cinnamon Toast Crunch (CTC) account looking for answers. Here’s what he got back:

“After further investigation with our team that closely examined the image, it appears to be an accumulation of the cinnamon sugar that sometimes can occur when ingredients aren’t thoroughly blended. We assure you that there’s no possibility of cross contamination with shrimp.”

In effect, the company was saying that cinnamon sugar somehow aggregated into clumpy shapes suggesting shrimp tails, but in fact were not shrimp tails.

Karp smelled something fishy (forgive me, I had to – it was right there). He re-examined the aggregations, and again concluded they were indeed shrimp tails. The company, meanwhile, issued a follow-up tweet insisting the foreign objects could not have occurred at their facility, and provided a helpful 1-800 phone number for cereal fans suspecting their cereal boxes had been tampered with.

Naturally, the issue quickly trended on Twitter and began getting media attention from Eater to Cosmopolitan to the New York Times.

The CTC Twitter account then suggested Karp send in the cereal for the company’s examination. Deciding not to part with evidence, and that a subsequent General Mills suggestion that he take the box to local police somehow had a tinge of absurdity, Karp sourced a third-party lab to run tests on the product. That’s where we leave our story, awaiting its pulse-pounding conclusion.

Crisis communicators: What’s wrong with this picture?

  • Any company targeted on social media with a product issue should immediately take the charge seriously and take the discussion offline. The initial communication from the CTC Twitter account (@CTCSquares, with more than 32,000 followers) should have asked Karp to direct message them, email, or – heaven forbid – call them and have a conversation. Instead, the person behind @CTCSquares publicly posted a definitive denial that the cereal could be contaminated with shrimp, making an outlandish suggestion that the shrimp tails were sugar clumps instead.
  • The customer is still always right (until they’re proved wrong), so don’t offhandedly dismiss their issue. The Cinnamon Toast Crunch Twitter site – and General Mills by association – publicly discredited Karp and his allegations. The social media blowback – while in large part comical – was a black eye for the cereal brand and General Mills’ reputation.
  • Train, re-train and monitor social media staff. Was the social media staffer’s post an improvised rogue response, or was it approved by a manger? While communications managers should allow social media staff reasonable creative freedom within brand limits, employees should be trained to know where the line is drawn and a manager’s help and approval is needed.
  • Don’t post definitive statements about any issue until a thorough investigation is completed. Without any further information or evidence, General Mills stated that Karp’s issue could not have happened at their facility.

Finally, on March 25, @CTCSquares posted the message it should have posted the moment they first heard from Karp:

“Job one at General Mills is food safety and quality. Whenever a consumer raises a concern about the possibility of food tampering, we investigate thoroughly. Effectively doing so requires us to work in partnership with consumers – and we are doing exactly that with Jensen Karp. We are working with Mr. Karp to obtain samples from the cereal he purchased, as well as the packaging, so we can conduct a thorough investigation and take the appropriate next steps. We thank Mr. Karp for raising this issue and working collaboratively with us on this matter.”

Stepping out of my role as a crisis counselor for a moment, I want to conclude with one positive result of this reputation debacle shared by the Today Show: a cookbook author’s tongue-in-cheek recipe for Cinnamon Toast Crustacean with Charred Pineapple Habanero Reduction that actually sounds like a delicious balance between sweet, savory and spicy. So, for the first time (and likely, last) in our Crisis Management Today newsletter, we’re printing a recipe. Bon Appetit!

  1. Add the cereal and some ground ginger to a food processor.
  2. Dip raw shrimp in egg white, then into the cereal mixture until well coated. Then fry ’em up in boiling oil.
  3. Broil a chunk of pineapple and a habanero pepper and blend it well with a pinch of salt, white vinegar and lots of honey.
  4. Put the glaze in a sauce pot with some orange zest. Toss in the fried shrimp and plate it up with a garnish of cinnamon toast crunch bits, a sliced serrano chili and some lime wedges.








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