(A version of this post originally ran in April 2021.)

Boosting consumer engagement is now easier for brands with the help of social media. However, social media platforms give consumers a lot of power to air their grievances. This is why every business should come up with a crisis communication plan.

When consumers file complaints in the public eye, companies are forced to manage the crisis publicly as well, especially when the criticisms go viral. That’s what happened to Cinnamon Toast Crunch in March 2021 when an X (formerly Twitter) user shared pictures of shrimp tails found in his cereal online.

A Tail (Tale) Of PR Blunders

The user’s initial tweet featured an image of cereal pieces with cinnamon sugar-coated shrimp tails and unidentifiable bits in each one. The post captured the internet’s attention, which forced the brand in question to step in and respond.

The company handled the issue by apologizing for the customer’s discovery, and declared they would report this to their “quality team and replace the box.”

The company then made another statement and attributed the shrimp tails to an “accumulation of cinnamon sugar,” but then privately asked the user to return the tainted cereal for investigation.

What is wrong with the incident? The brand’s succeeding actions after making a public statement made a bad situation worse, drawing even more negative attention to the brand – even inspiring a slew of #ShrimpGate memes. Even if Cinnamon Toast Crunch turned out to not be at fault for the presence of shrimp tail-like objects, their crisis strategy still needed to be updated.

This is what poor crisis communication looks like. In this article, we will cover the basics of crisis communication and what lessons in social media management we can glean from Cinnamon Toast Crunch’s handling of #ShrimpGate.

What Is Crisis Communication?

A strategic crisis communication plan will guide your company should disaster strike.

A strategic crisis communication plan will guide your company should disaster strike.

Before we cover crisis communication, let’s first define what a crisis is.

According to Hubspot, “A business crisis occurs when an unexpected problem puts the stability of a company or organization at risk.” Typically, the threat is unexpected and demands immediate action from the brand. #ShrimpGate, a crisis that both shocked consumers and threatened public safety, checked all these boxes.

Business crises fall into at least one of several categories, as follows:

  • Financial – Financial loss such as announcing a bankruptcy or store closures.
  • Personnel – Changes to staff that may affect operations or reputation such as employee furloughs or layoffs.
  • Organizational – An apology for misconduct or wrongdoing as a result of organizational practices.
  • Technological – Technological failure that results in outages, causing reduced functionality or functionality loss.
  • Natural – Natural crisis that necessitates an announcement or change of procedure. For example, defining safety precautions in the midst of a health crisis.

Crisis communication involves an organization sharing information to address a crisis affecting customers or its reputation. An effective plan can mitigate threats’ impact on the organization. Be it a sex scandal, mass layoffs or viral customer complaint, a crisis will negatively impact the reputation of your company and can potentially disrupt the continuity of your business. In times like these, crisis communication will help get your company back on track.

During a crisis, the brand’s intervention matters and should actively shape the narrative. Publicly addressing the situation enhances transparency and demonstrates your concern, leading to improved customer satisfaction.

Why Is A Crisis Communications Strategy Important?

Social media marketing is essential for any brand to connect with and expand their audience. However, social media also provides consumers with a broader platform to express their opinions. While a few negative comments or valid complaints won’t trigger a crisis, under certain circumstances, they could ignite a significant shift in the online discourse about your brand.

Crisis communication can help social media managers control a story when an issue gets out of hand.

Crisis communication can help social media managers control a story when an issue gets out of hand.

Before #ShrimpGate, Cinnamon Toast Crunch had a low-key online presence, mainly sharing memes and internet culture content. However, when a concerned customer publicly shared their fishy discovery, it inspired several users to create a multitude of memes, causing Cinnamon Toast Crunch to trend for several days.

Essentially, the conversation around Cinnamon Toast Crunch shifted from neutral to overwhelmingly negative almost overnight. While the attention was mostly humorous, this banter had the potential to cause long-term damage to the brand’s reputation and might have resulted in the loss of several business opportunities.

How can a crisis communication plan help? According to SocialMediaToday, “The key to managing a social media crisis is timeliness – your goal should be to respond within an hour of the crisis being spread.” Your response should also detail the measures your organization is taking to quell the crisis. Forbes notes brands can “create trust and confidence by sharing facts in real time, rather than waiting until you have all the answers.”

A crisis strategy allows your social media management team to get in front of a threat before it escalates. While this won’t put a stop to the spread, it will buy your company time to issue an official press release.  A quick, informative response will also help diffuse emotions online. If your audience isn’t upset with you, they are less likely to spread negative sentiment about your company.


Five Key Lessons From The #ShrimpGate Incident

Now that we grasp the significance of crisis communication in social media marketing, we can explore key takeaways from #ShrimpGate. These takeaways will help improve your social media management strategy and empower you to handle crises effectively.

Arguing with customers reflects poorly on your company; refrain from getting into fights online.

Arguing with customers reflects poorly on your company; refrain from getting into fights online.

1. Don’t Argue With Customers

Cinnamon Toast Crunch’s biggest social media management mistake was denying that the shrimp tails in the customer’s cereal were truly shrimp tails. Tom Meyvis, professor of marketing and consumer behavior at NYU, stated, “It’s a bad idea not to give customers the benefit of the doubt and you shouldn’t go around accusing them.”

Addressing the issue promptly could have prevented this gaff from becoming a major headline. When dealing with outrageous complaints, it’s advisable to engage with customers without arguing online to maintain good service and protect your reputation.

2. Take Ownership 

During a crisis, drawing attention to the issue may seem counterproductive for social media marketing efforts. However, it can position you as an authority on the subject. Cinnamon Toast Crunch’s move to dismiss the customer’s concern publicly without investigation – even with the physical evidence – failed to address the situation empathetically and informative.

By handling criticism openly and taking responsibility, companies can better manage social media during crises.

3. Keep Your Talking Points Consistent

During a crisis, develop a few talking points and stick to them!

During a crisis, develop a few talking points and stick to them!

Consistent messaging is crucial for managing a social media crisis effectively. Cinnamon Toast Crunch’s marketing team faced challenges when they privately investigated Karp’s cereal after publicly dismissing his concerns. This discrepancy between public and private messages was criticized by marketing experts, highlighting the importance of consistency. When handling crises, sticking to well-defined talking points is essential. Ensure your entire communications team, especially those responsible for social media, has access to this messaging. A united front will safeguard your brand’s reputation.

4. Be Transparent And Offer Solutions

During a crisis, especially one that threatens public safety, your audience seeks clarity on your problem-solving efforts. In such situations, your social media marketing should shift from regular communication to crisis updates. Unfortunately, Cinnamon Toast Crunch mishandled their response during the #ShrimpGate incident. They paused marketing but failed to keep their audience informed about their investigation, eroding consumer confidence. Professionals criticized their lack of evidence and suggested that even a generic safety commitment statement would have helped.

Instead of silence, public transparency about investigations is important. When there are no updates, brands should express gratitude for the customers’ patience. Finally, brands should be confident in sharing the resolution via social media and provide relevant links.

5. Crisis Communication Is Not An Opportunity For Building Brand Awareness

Your reach may expand during a crisis, but this is not the time for building brand awareness.

Your reach may expand during a crisis, but this is not the time for building brand awareness.

In the case of #ShrimpGate, marketing experts explained that associating a food product with disgust makes it impossible to turn the situation into a positive brand awareness campaign.

Sometimes, when the internet shines its spotlight on a brand, embracing it can be a smart move. After all, it’s free social media marketing. However, not all viral moments are marketing opportunities and brands have to step back and assess the situation before going further. Just remember that if you have to refer to the crisis communication plan, this is not an opportunity for building brand awareness.


If your social media management team finds itself in a similar situation, third-party teams such as Three Girls Media can provide insights and advice on crafting a crisis communication plan. Contact us and our team will be ready to support and align with your business goals.

Special Offer:

Sign up for a complimentary consultation during January and receive an Email Marketing Guide valued at $475!  We offer a 30-minute phone consultation with our CEO and can answer your questions and discuss your specific marketing needs – no strings attached. Call 360-955-1410 or contact us today to arrange your consultation!

Subscribe To Our E-Newsletter!

Want the latest marketing tips & tricks e from our team? Stay at the top of your marketing game and subscribe now!

Woo Hoo! You'll get your first marketing tips soon!