Your company has just killed 23 people and 57 others are deathly ill, some critical. Your production plant is dead in the water and more than 5,000 unique media stories have been written about your crisis.
What you do and how you communicate in such a situation literally will make or break your reputation and can lead to bankruptcy or rebirth. Perhaps, you think this is just one of those table-top worse-case scenarios and that it just couldn’t happen, especially not to your organization.
The Canadian firm Maple Leaf Foods most likely thought the same thing in 2008; however, listeria bacterium contaminated a number of its food products at its plant in the Toronto area. Suddenly the firm had a 100 percent brand recognition rate among Canadians and many Americans, and it was the sort of recognition you would rather not have.
Dr. Randy Huffman, senior vice president operations and chief food safety officer for Maple Leaf Foods, doesn’t mince his words when speaking of this crisis. He frequently starts his presentations by saying he works for a company that took the lives of 23 Canadians.
When the listeria crisis erupted, Huffman was president of the American Meat Institute (AMI) Foundation. Maple Leaf Foods contracted with Huffman, as an external consultant on food safety, and after working with the senior leadership team during the crisis, he joined the company’s safety and quality assurance programs primarily because he was so impressed with the company’s values when it came to handling the listeria outbreak.
Eight years later, he remains dedicated to the constant improvement of food safety standards. He and the other members of Maple Leaf’s senior leadership team continue to talk about the event that so drastically changed their organization because they believe others need to learn from that tragedy.
“We keep it real and alive,” Huffman said in an interview for Ivey in November 2014. He explained that, in the orientation video for Maple Leaf staff, from top level executives to middle management to temporary plant staff, the seriousness of this event is always emphasized in all trainings.
“I can guarantee you, you won’t find any other major corporate training videos that show a hearse,” he said, emphasizing that it’s important for new staff members to understand why the organization continues to raise the bar of food safety standards.
Few organizations get accolades for handling a crisis; however, Maple Leaf Foods is lauded time and time again for how well it handled this tragedy through open and transparent and timely communications.
There was no complex communications strategy. There was not a huge PR crisis team.
Instead, the company chose to keep a handle on the crisis within its management leadership team and strictly adhere to its company’s values. The strategy worked. The team did a number of things well to manage its crisis; Huffman emphasized three vital moves company officials made:
n They acted with urgency.
n They held themselves accountable.
n They were open and transparent from the outset.
CEO Michael McCain and the entire senior leadership team immediately accepted accountability and responsibility for the mistake once investigators pointed to the Maple Leaf products. They didn’t shift blame to food safety standards, or equipment manufacturers, or individual employees, or deign that they needed more time for investigation. The CEO simply owned up to the breach of standards at the organizational level and continually apologized throughout the event.
“Our values said to do what’s right, be transparent, open and honest,” Huffman said. “So that’s what we did.”
Once investigators linked Maple Leaf Foods to the outbreak, McCain immediately went to the media and told the company’s side of the story.
The company acknowledged the seriousness of the problem right up front. The homepage of the Maple Leaf Foods website featured a full-page update with information from the company along with links to information on the recall.
McCain personally apologized for the tragic incidents in a video that played on mainstream TV, and that the company posted to YouTube. Later the various social media platforms carried the video repeatedly.The company immediately moved to recall all 220 packaged meats produced at the affected plant.
A sense of urgency, being proactive and open and transparent from the outset of the crisis allowed Maple Leaf to rebirth itself and prosper instead of landing on the heap of bankruptcy, and the lessons learned apply to many organizations looking for guidance during a crisis.