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.
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?
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!