What Can We Learn From Cinnamon Toast #ShrimpGate?

Put down your pitchforks and bring on the empathy

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When I first came across Jensen Karp’s initial #ShrimpGate tweets late on Monday, I immediately thought about how I’d never enjoy Cinnamon Toast Crunch again. Then I thought of the social media managers.

I’ve been working in social media for the last several years and I’m no stranger to crisis communications, but this specific scenario was definitely new. The tweeter detailed how he found two cinnamon sugar-coated shrimp tails in his cereal box after having eaten a bowl. Before I read the rest of the thread, I immediately knew this could go only two ways: The conversation would quickly move offline thanks to a well-oiled response plan with the snafu quickly fading into obscurity, or it would become a total PR nightmare.

Unfortunately, option two played out. The Cinnamon Toast Crunch brand account started off strong by responding quickly and asking to take things to the DMs to investigate, offering to replace the product. Things deteriorated when the account backtracked soon after, suggesting that the shrimp tails were “accumulation of the cinnamon sugar that sometimes happens,” which ultimately attracted a strong public outcry, with actor Seth Rogen summing it up best:

Having a pre-established issues management plan that places honesty and transparency at the center is crucial. Had Cinnamon Toast Crunch maintained its initial tone and messaging around wanting to investigate immediately—while showing the utmost concern for Karp—it likely would have resulted in a very different outcome.

Had a comprehensive crisis plan been in place, the initial outreach and Twitter DM function would have been used only to escalate Karp’s complaint straight to the top of the General Mills chain of command, offering Karp full transparency about plans for investigation and recalls if necessary.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Cinnamon Toast Crunch brand account issued a statement that they could say “with confidence” that “this” didn’t happen at their facility, even though no investigation had yet been conducted. The brand’s official statement only alludes to tampering. Its response shouldn’t have ignored the crux of the scandal.

Gaslighting Karp while denying responsibility without any evidence of an investigation shouldn’t happen, either. Even a generic statement regarding the brand’s commitment to safety and sharing its plan for testing would have taken off some of the heat while they worked behind the scenes to investigate.

SMMs are often left to fend for themselves in the cesspool that can be social media—often regarded as no more than interns—while being the most public-facing humans behind the world’s biggest brands. It’s highly unlikely that those who were pressing send on the tweets had much involvement in the decision-making behind the response, so put down your pitchforks. Instead, ensure leadership is accountable for planning ahead. Multimillion-dollar companies can access top crisis communicators. Decision-making at this level should not fall on (or be blamed on) social media managers alone. Ensure that the team making decisions about active crises is made up of experts at multiple touchpoints: brand, PR, social media, strategy and leadership.

You never know when your brand could be coated in its own kind of crustacean crisis.