6 Social-Media Lessons From Cinnamon Toast Crunch Shrimp

How not to manage the fishiest of crises

What's a marketer to do when the shrimp rodeo comes to town?

If you're General Mills or Cinnamon Toast Crunch, last week was not one of your better ones. Conversely, if you're actress Danielle Fishel Karp, better known as Topanga from Boy Meets World and Girl Meets World, or her comedy writer husband Jensen Karp, it may have been a great week for you.

No matter who you are, if you spend any time on social media, you likely know what we're talking about. But in case you don't...

What on Sugary Shrimpy Earth Is Happening?

For anyone reading this who's blinking rapidly and scratching their head, here's a quick summary to get you up to speed:

1. Comedy writer Jensen Karp discovered sugar-coated shrimp tails in his box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch that he purchased at a Costco.

2. Karp tweeted at Cinnamon Toast Crunch, inquiring about the shrimp after not receiving a timely response through the form-fill on the website.

3. Cinnamon Toast Crunch said the shrimp tails were an accumulation of sugar.

4. Karp took another picture showing that they were, in fact, shrimp tails.

5. Chaos ensued (and is still ensuing).

6. Or to summarize even more quickly:

Social media moves fast. Since we began writing this piece, there were numerous additional developments. 

Black spots on the Cinnamon Toast Crunch pieces in the same box. Also, a piece of dental floss or string or rope? Cinnamon Toast Crunch told him to either ship them the mystery pieces or bring it to a local police precinct? He's bringing it to a lab instead, and placed the box in the passenger seat of his car? And that's not even covering the explosion of memes, jokes and commentary.

Suffice it to say … it's a LOT. 

Want to see where the crisis is now? Here's a link to the topic on Twitter to get you right up to speed on where this is as you're reading along.

Pro Tip: Toggle between "Top" and "Latest" to get a good sense of where it all is presently.

Social Media Crises Can Do Some Good

Social media crises are really only "good" in one way: They allow those of us who are not stuck in the middle of the crisis to observe the situation in real time and gather second-hand learnings, so if we ever end up embroiled in a crisis of our own, we are better equipped to not make the same mistakes, and to execute on learnings we gathered.

That is what we will do here. We'll dig into the shrimpy, sugar-coated mess, and bring you some lessons that we can all learn from it.

Lesson 1: Social Media Crisis Is a General Crisis

Crisis often begins on social media.

Sure, at first the crisis may seem like a few rogue tweets giving your social media managers a bad day … but that's only if it is dealt with effectively and efficiently. Do not forget that journalists count Twitter as one of their favorite social media networks.

According to Muck Rack's State of Journalism report in 2019, 83 percent of journalists called Twitter the most valuable social media network. That was up 13 percent from the year previous, and it is no doubt even higher today. We'd have to agree with them; Twitter truly is the real-time social network you can go to to find out who's winning on Ru Paul's Drag Race, or if Instagram is down just for you or for the whole country.

These journalists work for news outlets that have websites, and those websites need break-neck-timely, many-clicks-worthy, attention-stealing headlines to make ad revenue. Plus, the internet loves schadenfreude and irony—Karp? FISHel? Shrimp? It's a trifecta of hilarity.

This all ultimately results in what we saw here: The New York Times, CNN, TIME Magazine, New York Post, Fox News, E! Online, TMZ, Washington Post, Business Insider, MSN, Vulture, The Cut, and others all covered the story, resulting in a Google search suggestions box that looks like this:

And a social conversation cloud that looks like this:

And YES, it is true that Cinnamon Toast Crunch drew an unlucky straw that the guy who found the shrimp in question just so happened to be a popular comedy writer with over 100,000 comedy-focused social media followers, and that that comedy writer just so happened to be married to a famous nostalgia-inducing actress from a beloved sitcom and its subsequent reboot that even we watched …  but that doesn't matter.

From their very inception, social media crises are, in essence, hooked up to a bullhorn that is pointed at nearly every member of the media. You don't need hundreds of thousands of followers to trigger a social media crisis. You just need a few popular people to see your post and retweet you to get the snowball rolling down the hill.

And once one or two of the aforementioned reporters decide to engage and write about the situation? Forget about it.

Lesson 2: Crisis Is Often a Customer Service Issue

Social media is another customer service avenue. In fact, it is one of the most public and demanding. What happens when you have an issue with a brand? Do you go to their website? Call customer service? Sure, maybe. But more than likely, you're going to fire off a tweet tagging them, or find them on Instagram and slip into their DMs for (hopefully) an immediate response.

We recommend establishing a detailed crisis plan that cascades down to anyone who works on your company's platforms. There needs to be a way to cross-check outreach from social to other customer service channels (phone, email ... heck, even snail mail) and have a way to alert the right people higher up in the organization.

The lesson? Empower your social media customer service reps to escalate cases that are clearly out of the ordinary or beyond the pale, and don't force them to add this to the list of things they need to do in a day. 

Seriously, how many shrimp tail pieces do they hear about? This did not need to be funneled into the same workstream as dealing with inappropriate memes featuring the anthropomorphized Cinnamon Toast Crunch square.

Even Karp could tell you that:

What can start small on social can quickly snowball. While General Mills was perhaps feeling preemptively defensive about another potential Wendy's finger-in-chili situation, that was no reason to deny what was clear in the picture. Those are shrimp tails, even if the cereal might have been packaged in a facility where no shrimp are ever processed.

In fact, Karp admits he reached out to General Mills to help them "with a real issue, then watched them tell me I was ACTUALLY holding sugar clumps, has made me doubt they can they fairly investigate themselves."

Lesson 3: Bad Press Won't Be Your Only Problem

The double-edged sword is that General Mills and Cinnamon Toast Crunch are simultaneously a laughing stock and trending meme, and that that meme is a Trojan horse delivering a brand-damaging message. Think Tide Pods, except this is something you're actually meant to eat that could hurt you.

Folks with crustacean allergies are concerned. A breakfast cereal is now intrinsically tied to discarded shrimp tails (and other users are chiming in that it's not the first time mystery crustacean meat has appeared in their foods), bizarre black spots, random rope, potential rats and who knows what all else. 🤢🤢🤢

Other users have chimed in, making the story even worse. One suggested the shrimp tails were the result of rats getting into the packaging, likely at the point of sale or even in the factory itself. Sure enough, Karp allegedly opened the package and found string and pieces of cereal covered in unknown black spots. Karp then tweeted about calling poison control and learning that "Good news is, if it IS rat poo, I won't feel the flu-like effects of an infection for a few days." Not an appetizing morning, for sure.

As if Karp and his 100K followers weren't enough, celebrities like Seth Rogen added their two cents into the mix.

People are making reaction videos and memes. Even if the story fades soon, the damage to the brand in the flash pan of social media has been done. Inquiring minds want to know, will this spark a TikTok challenge?

Lesson 4: Tone Matters… A LOT

Tone is a very big deal on social media. And all responses to other people (whether those people are complaining or praising or anything in between) need to be carried out with a significant degree of empathy. Be human first. This doesn't necessarily mean accepting fault or blame; a company can thank someone for reaching out, acknowledge where someone is at because of the situation, and then offer that customer a solution.

How would you feel if you found shrimp parts in your breakfast cereal and the response you got came with two exclamation points … and an offer for a free box of that same cereal?

It wasn't until Karp responded by "putting them on blast," quote tweeting their initial response for his entire feed to see that Cinnamon Toast Crunch's tone finally began to match his.

In strange or unexpected situations, get one cross-functional, top-to-bottom team to handle the whole situation. One of the first things we train our clients to do is to get the right answer instead of the right-now answer. Transparency is also key.

A better response could have been, "Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We are so sorry you have had this experience. We are now investigating this matter, and will likely need to check in with you at various points for more information. In order to facilitate this conversation, would you please DM us the best number to call you at? [NAME], our [TITLE], will be the person working with you the whole time."

Lesson 5: DMs are NOT a Safe Space

As many of us learned in the early days of the internet, nothing is ever truly private. From hitting forward on an email to the ubiquity of screenshots, everyone can be "shown the receipts" at any time.

And GM had their receipts shown. And shown. And shown. In those DMs that Karp made public, we were made privy to a process of researching the issue at hand (sending the pieces in an envelope, bringing them to a local police precinct). This process may actually be standard operating procedure, and logical, but Cinnamon Toast Crunch was already deep in it, and so it only made the situation worse.

Then they moved on to emailing him, screengrabs of which also made it onto social media:

Lesson 6: It All Comes Down to Trust

One of the most telling receipts that Karp shared was in one of the very first screengrabs of a DM from Cinnamon Toast Crunch. In his response, the central conceit: This was all about trust, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch violated that trust before any of this even began.

In an effort to quickly stomp out a social media crisis of a post trending that shrimp had appeared in a box of their cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch lost the trust of the person who found the shrimp, infuriated him, publicly embarrassed him, and achieved the opposite of the desired effect—this is now far more viral than it ever likely would have been.

Wrapping Up This Shrimp Rodeo

Humor aside, there's a very important lesson for brands to take away here. If you don't have a clear process to handle serious customer allegations on social media, you run the risk of going from one upset customer to a full-blown multi-channel brand-damaging crisis. 

In the age of the internet, we understand this could be a hoax or some miscalculated PR campaign, but when brands fail to be empathetic, and violate the trust of their fans, the price they pay can be steep. Remember, this all started with a guy who loved Cinnamon Toast Crunch so much that he bought a multi-pack of it at Costco.

Nothing makes the internet happier than when large companies get taken down a peg or are shown to be out of touch. You'll end up with the upvotes and front-page spotlight on Reddit that you always wanted … but not for any reason you'd ever wish for, particularly when it's a "custom spice blend" that involves something that isn't on anyone's desired menu.

Profile picture for user Rachel Neff and Justin Buchbinder
Rachel Neff and Justin Buchbinder
Rachel Neff, PhD, is account supervisor, digital strategy, at Finn Partners. Justin Buchbinder is director of paid and organic social media at Finn Partners.

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