Every organization, at some point in its trajectory, no matter how well managed, prudent, or cautious it is, will encounter a crisis. It’s not a matter of if, but when.
My career in communications has driven me down a path that has meant staring in the face of multiple crises. Big ones. The kind that makes national or international news. People saying horrific things in politics. Things falling from tall buildings in the middle of crowded downtowns. Physical abuse. Various accusations of malfeasance or moral turpitude. But no crisis quite tests one’s mettle like people dying.
That happened in 2008 when I was a partner in a big international PR firm who happened to be on contract with Maple Leaf Foods. While at a conference in Toronto, I got a call from my boss to come urgently to Maple Leaf Foods headquarters. Many of you will know the back story.
Listeriosis is an endemic bacterium. It doesn’t really pose a threat unless there’s a critical mass of it on a food source. In which case, it can be serious to the immuno-compromised, the pregnant, the elderly, etc. That was the case in 2008 when a faulty piece of Maple Leaf machinery in Toronto caused a buildup of listeria in packaged food products. People died. Many of them.
I was lodged at Maple Leaf HQ for many days on end, grappling with the evidence as it poured in, assisting with media response and working with an executive team that, after 20+ years in this business, was the most competent I have ever seen.
The results were conclusive, it was Maple Leaf products that bore and delivered the bacterium that caused death.
On a late night call on a Friday when the conclusive DNA results came in, the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, Michael McCain, made the utterly courageous decision, against the advice of legal counsel, to take full responsibility for the deaths and illnesses. He had lawyers on the line. He hung up on them. This man had guts of steel.
The long and the short is that a plan of taking responsibility, being accountable, taking incredibly expensive steps to remove product from shelves and being open, transparent, and forthright was the right move. The media was largely silenced. The cost of litigation was mitigated. Share price popped back up within days.
A crisis success.
So, what is the take-away? What I thought intuitively at the time, I have come to more empirically understand since – what Maple Leaf Foods did was to appeal to a narrative that lives in the psyches of most average Canadian folks.
We’re all storytellers. More precisely, we are all story followers. Contrary to what the rationalist philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries believed, we don’t rationally think everything through. We have a story, or set of stories, lodged deep in our minds that act as a heuristic to help us lead our lives. When we find a situation that accords with our stories, we follow it. When we find something that contradicts our internal story, we argue against it. David Hume, ages ago, (from a desk at the University of Edinburgh that is still there if you want to go sit in it) figured out quite correctly that we spend most of our brainpower forcing the world around us accord with our personal narratives. Smart folks like Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind have confirmed that thesis with modern social science.
We like our stories. Communicators should not try to contradict them. We need to understand them, and appeal to them.
In the case of Maple Leaf Foods, the story elements that appealed to common, everyday Canadians were:
- People make mistakes.
- Things break, but with a plan you can fix them.
- People should take responsibility for their mistakes.
- When folks say sorry, we should give them another chance.
There were other elements to the relative success of the Maple Leaf Crisis Plan. And those involved smart communications tactics, namely:
- Take control of the media cycle – tell media news is coming soon, at what time, and then deliver on that.
- Provide detail, lots of it. Keep media informed of progress on investigation, reporting to authorities, and internal processes.
- Get on social media. Provide enough information that conjecture is drowned by fact.
Again, every organization will face a crisis at some point. Do you have a crisis plan? You should, even if that means planning for who will say what, informed by whom and under what circumstances. Who will media call? Who’s writing on social media? Who writes the talking points? Who will ultimately be in charge and approve messages?
Those are critical logistical elements. But, if the crisis is deep enough that it hits the national headlines, ask yourself – are we telling a story that is authentic enough to resonate with average Canadians, our neighbours, or our family on a level they fundamentally understand?
That’s the narrative you must craft.
And the best thing about that kind of crisis plan? Telling the truth is both easier and more effective than making up excuses. It works.
But people within an organization experiencing crisis can easily be blinded by a fear of self incrimination. So, call in a third party who can ensure a modicum of dispassionate objectivity when things go off the rails.
Tell the truth. Be authentic. Be proactive. Speak to what average people think is the reality of their lives.
That’s effective crisis communications.