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)

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.