Crisis management, Canadian edition

21Apr09

I once read a book called Trust us — we’re experts! It taught me a lot about how public relations firms have found a home defending a lot of mega-rich industry giants in fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals, and biotech — to name a few. Of course, PR firms only really need to defend these giants when they screw up. That’s when people who understand how to make bad news turn into good news swoop in and save the day.

Guess which Canadian firm has very obviously employed a bunch of crisis managers in past months?

Hint: Think about food.

It’s these guys. They made headlines, you’ll remember, because listeria got loose in their Toronto plant last August and, tragically, dozens of people got sick and 21 even died as a result.

At the time, their crisis managers (whoever they were) jumped into action:

The company has been highly visible since the crisis hit. The firm’s CEO, Michael McCain, held press conferences and posted an apology on its web site. A company spokeswoman did interviews in a wide range of media. The firm also ran TV spots and took out advertisements in newspapers.

In one of those national newspaper ads (they took out several full-pagers), the company outlined their plans to reform their ways and ensure an outbreak would never again occur in a Maple Leaf plant.

Among those plans was to engage “a third-party panel of experts to identify why this happened, and to provide guidance with respect to future operations.”

There was no mention of who was on the panel, of course, but that was beside the point. If they were experts, everything would be OK.

At the time, other experts (university professors, mostly) quoted in media thought that Maple Leaf would recover. Earlier this year, polling firm Hotspex confirmed that the brand had indeed rebounded — confidence in the company’s products jumped from 64 per cent in September to 91 per cent in December. A job well done, it seems.

But Maple Leaf isn’t out of the woods just yet. Michael McCain, the face of the company who was all over media last August, penned a column on April 2 that appeared in Halifax’s Chronicle Herald and was headlined “Learning from Listeria tragedy”. McCain outlined the specific steps his company took in the aftermath of the outbreak:

In the months after the August 2008 disaster, Maple Leaf made substantial changes to significantly reduce Listeria in our plants. We have improved our sanitization to prevent Listeria, doubled the amount of testing we do to ensure we find it if we have it, and strengthened our product recall procedures, should those first two lines of defence fail.

He then tip-toes into the most recent trouble at Maple Leaf:

In the last few weeks we have had a few setbacks on our journey to food safety leadership that you may have heard about. A more complete update is available on our web site and blog, but let me deal with one in particular.

Uh oh.

A few weeks ago, we detected Listeria on a piece of equipment in our Hamilton plant. This in itself wasn’t bad news. With an intensive testing program, finding Listeria can be pretty common – the more you test for it, the more you find it. According to our new procedures, whenever we detect Listeria on a food contact surface, we hold and test the food from the line and it won’t be released until we know it is safe.

That’s where we messed up. There was a miscommunication within our quality control staff and 26,000 packages of wieners were prematurely shipped out. So we recalled the wieners, even though we were not required to. Subsequent testing indicated that there actually was no Listeria monocytogenes found in the product, but that just isn’t the point. We shipped product that our procedures said should not have been shipped and our commitment to these procedures is absolute.

So they screwed up. But check out this next bit of crisis management: the declaration of openness and transparency.

Because of last August’s tragedy, Maple Leaf now “owns” the Listeria issue. We can’t forget that link, and we can’t ask Canadians to forget it. We have made progress in our battle against Listeria. When we have setbacks, we will be open about them, we will address them, and move forward. We plan to achieve even more.

Just the other day (maybe even today), the company started advertising at National Newswatch.

Maple Leaf is actively updating a blog, too, which chronicles the company’s “Journey to Food Safety Leadership”:

This blog will feature commentary on our progress, including videos and podcasts, address topics and questions related to Listeria and other food safety issues, and respond to events as they occur.

We invite you to interact with us through this blog, sharing your comments, questions and opinions.  We look forward to engaging in a productive and candid conversation on this important topic.

That blog might be active in coming days, since this report (coverage here) and this news surfaced.

Crisis management. Somewhere, someone is getting paid a lot of money to help Maple Leaf wade through the muck.

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