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A ‘case study’ in effective crisis management

|Written By Robert Todd

Maple Leaf Foods is likely to restore its reputation, despite its possible role in a deadly listeriosis outbreak, thanks to a public relations crisis response that tossed aside legal considerations, say communications experts.

‘I can’t think of anything they did badly,’ Susan Reisler says. ‘They did everything extremely well.’

Boyd Neil, senior vice president and national practice director for corporate communications at consultancy firm Hill & Knowlton Canada, calls Maple Leaf’s response to the listeriosis outbreak “a case study in how to effectively handle a crisis.”

Susan Reisler, who works with law firms as a partner at communications firm Media Profile, says Maple Leaf took the high road as soon as the crisis erupted. The company didn’t deny anything, committed to investigating the problem, and issued full-page apology ads in newspapers.

The swift and forthright response followed the outbreak of bacteria in one of its plants that was linked to at least 17 deaths. The media campaign has been so successful that at least one newspaper columnist suggested Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain - who immediately took responsibility for the plant outbreak - might give federal political leaders a few pointers on leadership.

One of Neil’s main reasons for hailing the response is McCain’s public statement, made shortly after the outbreak was discovered, that legal considerations were secondary.

“Going through the crisis there are two advisors I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants,” McCain was quoted in the Globe and Mail. “It’s not about money or legal liability, this is about being accountable for providing consumers with safe food.”

Noting that McCain likely did listen to legal counsel, Neil says the statement was an acknowledgment that if limiting legal liability was the main objective of the company’s response, it would be near impossible to restore its reputation.

“That, I think, set the tone of [the response],” says Neil, noting that renowned lawyers like Purdy Crawford - a Canadian Business Hall of Fame inductee - hailed McCain’s response.

“The whole reason that Maple Leaf has been successful, and even though the recall has cost them $20 million in product [recalls], their reputation is intact,” says Neil, who leads Hill & Knowlton’s crisis response team.

“People continue to trust them, and that is critical in crisis communications. Your goal as a crisis communications counsellor is to assist the company in creating a communication program that defends the reputation of the company.”

While company directors shouldn’t ignore legal counsel, Neil says lawyers need to understand that legal liability isn’t the only factor to consider in a crisis. But that’s not an easy pill for many lawyers to swallow. They believe future litigation is prejudiced if a CEO makes an apology, says Neil.

“That may well be true, but it’s only the lawyer’s advice,” he says. “What the lawyer has a responsibility to do, I think, is to provide evidence of how in that particular circumstance, making an apology will indeed prejudice the future ability to defend yourself in a legal action.”

Evidence suggests apologies actually help mitigate damages, says Neil, noting many non-trigger happy litigants can be pacified with a simple, “I’m sorry.”

“Lawyers have to take that into account, and they frequently don’t,” he says.

Neil says lawyers play a key role in shaping the presentation of apologies, or statements of regret, to mitigate damage.

The Ontario Bar Association continues to lobby the provincial government to introduce legislation giving legal protection to companies that express regret or apologize publicly following crises.

Aside from issuing a prompt apology, Neil says Maple Leaf effectively used different mediums to deliver its message directly to the public.

Its web site was utilized to deliver information during the crisis, including a detailed action plan. A television commercial featuring a statement by McCain also has played out well for the company, says Neil. He notes that the commercial has been posted online on YouTube, and nearly 60,000 views have been registered.

“To me, that’s as effective as advertising in some ways, although in this case mass advertising was useful because it’s a mass consumer product,” he says,

adding the popular web video posting site is becoming a more frequent spot for companies to post CEO responses to crises.

“I think it’s very good, because in the case of Michael McCain and the YouTube video

. . . these are people that are keenly interested in knowing what Michael McCain said about this. That means he’s reaching an audience that will listen. It’s unfiltered, and how much did it cost him? Nothing.”

Reisler notes it’s unclear whether McCain chose to take the lead in the company’s response, or if it was part of a concerted PR response. Maple Leaf, ironically, couldn’t comment to Law Times for this story in time for publication.

While journalists tried to find missteps in the company’s response to the listeriosis outbreak, there doesn’t seem to be a single wrong turn, says Reisler.

“I can’t think of anything they did badly,” she says. “They did everything extremely well.”

She adds that, although class actions have been put in motion due to the outbreak, lawyers will be better able to defend the company “because they did the right thing.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I would argue that by removing all this antagonism, negativity, all of that, they’ll be able to defend it on the basis of the law, and not on emotion,” says Reisler.

Silvie Kuppek, executive director of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association, says the organization can’t comment directly on the Maple Leaf crisis response.

But she said in-house lawyers are spending an increasing amount of time dealing with requests for media comment. In response, the association has started to offer seminars and workshops to help them deal with crisis communications, as well as media communications training. “It is now becoming a part of the corporate counsel role,” she says.

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