Maple Leaf Foods following the Tylenol textbook

Every time a commercial product ends up killing people (with some exceptions), flacks like to refer to the 1982 Tylenol recall as a textbook example of crisis communication. We all like to tell the Tylenol story – heroic flacks convincing upper management to recall the whole stock and rapidly establishing new safety features, thus restoring public confidence in the product and saving the shareholders from financial hardship.

I was thinking about that as Maple Leaf Foods recalled 220 meat products today. They’re obviously following the Tylenol case study: take everything off the shelves, get your CEO in front of the cameras, engage the media in the face of massive coverage, protect the public. They’re even using YouTube. I bet that when they reopen the Toronto plan in six months, it will be the cleanest plant in North America, with bacteriological analysis every step of the way. Eh, the food irradiation debate might even come up again.

So – good, solid PR work. I hope they write a book about it some day, or at least participate to a CPRS panel discussion.

There’s just one thing that bothers me with the Tylenol model. Back in 1982, people died because some murderous rear-end tampered with the product. Nobody could point the finger at the company and say “you killed those people”.

If the investigation shows the meat was contaminated when it left their plant, I don’t see how Maple Leaf Foods can protect itself against that accusation.

AUGUST 26 UPDATE: See also the comments, as well as PR Ninja’s take on Maple Leaf’s PR efforts.

AUGUST 28 UPDATE: Well, I was wrong about one thing and right about another in my second paragraph. Maple Leaf Foods did not wait six months before reopening the plant and make it the safest in North America – they’re just glad to be back to business as usual as fast as possible. And it turns out my hunch about irradiation was right. Make enough predictions and a few will end up being right.

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4 Responses to Maple Leaf Foods following the Tylenol textbook

  1. Ron Good says:

    re: If the investigation shows the meat was contaminated when it left their plant, I don’t see how Maple Leaf Foods can protect itself against that accusation.

    From a business standpoint, I don’t think Maple leaf would (or even should) have to protect itself against that accusation. Accidents happen and expecting infalibility in this situation would be beyond just unfair.

    Maple Leaf Foods (and its forerunner meat business, Canada Packers Inc) has been operating since 1927. Given the magnitude of the operation and the inconvenient fact that raw meat is a very decent bacterial culture medium at the best of times, I think Canada Packer’s track record stands for itself and I expect the company will continue nicely.

    I just saw the very straight-up TV spot you mentioned on a cable channel and it’s a direct and effective–and probably sufficient–statement. After all, Maple Leaf Foods didn’t invent listeria; the company is a disease victim every bit as much as the (luckily very few) unfortunate customers.

  2. Good PR? Have you seen the PSA? McCain looks like a robot and completely lacks the sincerity necessary for this situation. Maple Leaf completely disregarded the golden rule of communication: know thy audience! Here’s a statistic a colleague of mine told me today: on average, there are about 11 cases of Listeria in Canada every year–why didn’t the PR people play on that? This crisis made it seem like Listeria was created by Maple Leaf. Their PR team would have been far better of educating the public on Listeria and THEN having McCain work on the shattered customer confidence.
    Maple Leaf isn’t doing anything admirable by recalling $20 million worth of product– they are trying to avoid any more class action lawsuits.

  3. finalspin says:

    Ron – When people die from food you prepared, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got millions of satisfied customers behind you. Same as nuclear energy, “it worked fine for 30 years before it blew up” won’t be a very effective spin.

    Brandon – Of course they are trying to avoid a class action and protect their market share and praying the share value won’t crash down too much. They are playing it safe (and by the book), trying to cut their losses.
    I don’t think “educate the public and and then work on confidence” works in a crisis situation, notably because it looks like you’re deflecting blame. I’m trying to think of an example of that technique being used in a crisis… all that comes to (my tired) mind is the Exxon defense back in 1989 after the tanker accident in Alaska. Explaining the harch conditions of shipping along the Alaskan coast didn’t work well. I’d be interested to see more succesful examples. Good case studies, anyone?
    Sure, McCain looks like… the CEO of a major corporation not used to being in the limelight. Still, it’s an important part of the strategy to have the CEO show responsibility. Better the uninspiring PSA than archive footage of McCain talking about corporate profits…
    11 cases per year is normal? Okay… We’re up to 26 from Maple Leaf products this Summer right now. Hard to make it pass as business as usual.

    Thanks for the comments guys. Keep them coming.

  4. Ron Good says:

    I thought Mr McCain looked and spoke like a shell-shocked person, especially keeping in mind he’s the CEO of a large business. That plainness, if you will, is one of the reasons the spot didn’t look untrustworty to me.

    Would it have been better if the McCain ad had been, say, more “Hollywood”? I actually don’t think so.

    When people die from food you prepared, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got millions of satisfied customers behind you.

    Well, sure it does. A long safe track record is evidence of consistent care and provides a logical defense to accusations of carelessness. There’s an important difference between an honest mistake and an act of callous disregard. It’s the difference between an error of knowledge and an error of moral judgement. I think most people understand that. In short, I think Maple Leaf will survive because the public doesn’t think this unfortunate situation is anything like “business as usual”. If the public thought it was business as usual, Maple Leaf would fold on the spot.

    Plane crashes happen all the time, but the airline business and airline companies survive bacause the general public accepts that the companies proceed with a high level of care in spite of errors understood as misfortune or accidents.

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