7 Lessons From Maple Leaf Foods’ Crisis Communications

Toronto’s Maple Leaf Foods has been front and centre in the Canadian media over the last week after being linked to the illness and death of several consumers. This weekend, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Public Health Agency of Canada determined that a strain of listeria bacteria afflicting the consumers matched the strain identified in some Maple Leaf food products.

According to the CBC, the outbreak "…has been linked to 12 deaths out of 26 confirmed cases of the disease in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan."

The company’s response to the crisis has been fascinating, not least because its openness has caught the attention of the media.

A few notable points about the response:

  • Use a prominent spokesperson: Once it became clear that Maple Leaf Foods was linked to the outbreak, CEO Michael McCain wasted no time in getting out in front of the media and telling the company’s side of the story.
  • Publicly apologize: McCain, as CEO, personally apologized for the tragic incidents in a video that played on mainstream TV, and that the company posted to YouTube:
  • Be Proactive: Once the link between Maple Leaf Foods and the listeria outbreak was confirmed, the company moved to recall all 220 packaged meats produced at the affected plant.
  • Fix the problem: In a release this evening, the company says it "…continues to actively meet with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), in addition to external industry experts, to determine the details of the food safety protocols under which the facility will be reopened." The company has also "…assembled industry leading experts to consult and advise us on several physical and operational enhancements being considered."
  • Use appropriate messaging: The company has kept to several well thought-out messages (as noted by Boyd Neil):
    • "Going through the crisis there are two advisers I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants. It’s not about money or legal liability, this is about our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food."
    • This is a terrible tragedy. To those people who have become ill, and to the families who have lost loved ones, I want to express my deepest and most sincere sympathies. Words cannot begin to express our sadness for your pain."
  • Be consistent: The company has been consistent in its messaging:
    • "We believe it is important to take these broader preventative actions to respond to this situation promptly, comprehensively, and in the best interests of our consumers" (August 20 news release)
    • "We know this has shaken consumer confidence in us. Our actions will continue to be guided by putting their interest first" (August 23 news release)
    • "Our actions are guided by putting public health first." (August 24 news release)
    • "We remain steadfast in our belief that our actions must continue to be guided by what is in the best interests of public health" (August 25 news release)
    • "…our management of the Listeria outbreak will be motivated by one thing only – the best public health interests of Canadians and specifically, our customers." (MapleLeaf.com)
  • Be open: The company is acknowledging the seriousness of the problem. The homepage of the Maple Leaf Foods website features a full-page update with information from the company along with links to information on the recall. Compare that to the Menu Foods pet food recall last year, where the company denied responsibility.

Maple Leaf Foods homepage

We should absolutely remember that this stems from tragic events and that people died during this. It’s difficult to tell how badly Maple Leaf Foods will be affected; 12 deaths is a tough pill for people to swallow and communications can only solve so much.

From a crisis communications perspective, though, it’s difficult to see where Maple Leaf Foods has put a foot wrong. It looks like the company had a plan for a scenario like this and, now that the worst has happened, they’re implementing it.

What’s your take?

(Disclosure: Maple Leaf Foods is a client of Fleishman-Hillard, a competitor of my employer Thornley Fallis)

  • Heather and I saw the Maple Leaf commercial for the first time this evening Dave. We were amazed by the apparent openness of Michael McCain and his messaging. He looked exhausted and remorseful, which is exactly how he should look.

    I’m sure the lawsuits are going to cost them dearly, but their approach of taking responsibility and being transparent has really impressed me.

    We need to see more businesses accept this kind of responsibility as readily as Maple Leaf Foods has.

  • Dave:

    Great summary by you and a text book example by Maple Leaf foods on the execution of a crisis PR plan.

    But I think the finally tally on how successful this effort will be for the company (understanding that success in the light of loss of life is relative) won’t be able to be gauged for months. But I do believe they have given themselves a great shot at actually coming out of this with a second life.

    Best always,
    – Peter

  • Dave, thanks for outlining all that they’ve done. As close to Canada as I am (NH), I have heard some about this case but not as much as if it had happened in the US. The US media are amazingly parochial when it comes to issues like this, a bit off topic but it’s an annoyance to me!

    Ben touched a bit on a question I had–what is the litigation climate like in Canada compared to the US? I find it difficult to picture a US company taking these steps–even though as a professional communicator, I believe this route is the best–due to the litigation climate here. The legal department at any US food company would be flipping out at the idea of going on tape and admitting responsibility.

    Jen

  • Jen – I’ve wondered the same thing. It’s rare to see this kind of openness and I’m interested to see how this plays out in the courts. My (educated? uneducated? you decide) guess is that they weighed the potential court costs against the long-term reputation damage and decided that, along with being the right thing to do, that they would benefit more in the long-term from coming out and apologizing.

    I’d love to hear from someone who knows the full story there – I can only speculate.

  • Hey Dave,

    This is a great little synopsis. I think you hit it right on the head with their ‘openess’ being able to off-set long term negative impact.

    The beauty of this is that they must have had a emergency-plan geared for this. Well, that’s were I would put my money. They were clear, concise, consitent and fast.

    I think Sunshine propane can take a few notes on crisis management from them. The flip-side to this that Maple Leaf has been able to put a human-face to their company. The benefit of this that people will remember not as faceless insitution but as a business run by people that made a few mistakes. That’s a connection most people can relate too .. but I wonder if they can forgive them?

    Keep up the good work,

  • It definitely would appear that Maple Leaf Foods was indeed prepared with some sort of crisis plan. I’ve seen several of the commentators say that this was a “textbook” example.

    I’m not sure if it is a textbook example or not, but it definitely will be in the future. IMHO because of the way they handled this any reputation damage will be minimal and they will soon regain consumers trust.

  • Samuel

    I question the ‘consistent’ message. In fact the Globe and Mail is running with a story about the contradictions from the top two guys at Maple Leaf.

    On the one hand:

    “Tragically, our products have been linked to illnesses and loss of life.”

    Maple Leaf chief executive officer Michael McCain, in a company video posted on website YouTube on the weekend. He repeated this statement in an open letter yesterday

    And on the other…

    “Maple Leaf products have not been directly linked to consumer illness and death.”

    Michael Vels, Maple Leaf chief financial officer, on an analyst conference call yesterday

    Consistency is key. I’m surprised to see the backtracking.

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  • Indeed, it has been fascinating for us PR types to watch this unfold. Certainly, Mr. McCain was right to take the role of primary spokesperson, and he has done the job well.

    I’m curious to know what people thought of the advocacy ad that they ran on Aug 22?

    As a consumer, I appreciated the pop-up that appeared when I visited mapleleaf.com. I was glad I didn’t have to dig around their site to find the list of recalled items.

  • You know what I really like about that TV spot? I’ve watched it a bunch of times, but didn’t notice McCain’s self-introduction.

    I like that he says who he is, but leaves his title out of it. Sure, it’s still in the video–and I think that’s important–but so many other presidents are sure to spit out those three big letters at every opportunity.

  • AS

    I honestly feel sorry for the company, when I gather the facts and divide the numbers and do some simple yet powerful math (along my knowledge in biology) I and anyone for that matter should realize that the probability of the bacteria being found in my or your food was VERY VERY low. I mean words such as “BREAKTHOUGHHHHHHHHHH AND CRISISSSSS” are used and what happened? 12 people died?????????
    12 people with weakened immune systems I bet, well you gota have your veggies!!

    I mean think about it people… 12 divided by the population of Canada, thats a REALLY small percentage now isn’t it? So stop worrying and making a damn big deal out of this and worry about the hundreds of thousands of millions of people that are dieing from contaminated water, food, blah blah every day in the world around us.

    Canada is very, whats the word… panicky INO.
    And I’m a proud Canadian here in Toronto

  • The only reason he was so honest is because it looks better in court.

  • Stacey

    It’s all PR. I don’t think they are truly sorry for the ill and loss of lifes. That said..

  • rob cagan

    Did anyone listen to McCain’s so called “apology” and “action plan” to the loved ones of the dead consumers of their diseased meat products on You Tube. It’s not an apology, but rather a weak attempt at damage control. McCain states “…we believe we know what caused the problem and we believe we have corrected it”. Sorry Mr. McCain, you assert that “listeria is be everywhere in the environment”, and in this case you admit this killing bacteria was “found spots deep inside the slicing equipment where the listeria could have avoided our rigorous cleaning procedures. We fixed that by something called a deep sanitization”. Why wait for death to occur before cleaning and sanitizing due diligence.
    When you state “we believe” in the above statement, is that your terminology or your high priced lawyer’s script. Regardless, if you “believe” such language is sufficient to provide a level of comfort to all you intend to convince to feed your food products to their loved ones, you are insulting the intelligence of all who are watching and listening to nothing more than a public relation commercial. Surely your frig doesn’t contain any sliced meats from that processing facility.
    I personally provided you, your father Chairman of Maple Leaf, specifically Wallace McCain, way before this preventable tragedy that one of your companies was operating using ingredients with high levels of bacteria in a plant that was operating with pest infestation, providing you and many top executives, Officers of Maple Leaf, the Board of Directors of Maple Leaf, Board of Directors of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund who own 1/3 on Maple Leaf’s stock and are represented on the Board of Maple Leaf and even Officers of the Toronto Stock Exchange who trade Maple Leaf stock with water test results and pest control reports documenting gross actionable negligence. The Managing Director of that Maple Leaf Company continues in that same official capacity today. As well, you brag this incompetent top executive; Peter Maycock is one of your trusted company Officers on your website. I once again repeat: SHAME ON ALL OF YOU! I suggest if any content stated above is untrue you should sue me.

  • Twitter Comment by @Ina_Steinbach (Ina Steinbach)

    @clab Kennst du schon diesen Fall von Maple Leaf Foods? Gelungenes Beispiel für Online-Krisen-PR. [link to post]

    http://twitter.com/Ina_Steinbach/statuses/1099922159

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

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  • Foods are very important..It help us to survive..Now, in this article, they are facing food crisis..How are we going to help?

  • Foods are very important..It help us to survive..Now, in this article, they are facing food crisis..How are we going to help?

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