Communicating in a Crisis

By Greg Bennett

Saying sorry is the hardest thing to do

In August 2008, Maple Leaf Foods was facing the worst crisis in its 100-year history.

Across the country, dozens of people fell ill—and some died—from consuming listeria-tainted packaged meats. A massive recall ensued, forcing the firm to shut down its Toronto packaging plant. Many thought the crisis would be the end of the iconic Canadian brand.

But Maple Leaf is as prominent today as it ever was.

How did they do it?  How could they overcome such a disaster and restore the public’s trust? Through outstanding crisis communications, including owning up to their mistakes.

There was no carefully thought out communications plan being implemented, but if you read the Globe and Mail’s The testing of Michael McCain and consider how the CEO handled communications during those critical days, you’ll note that he did a lot of things right, just naturally.

Early on, McCain chose not to listen to lawyers, accepting personal responsibility for the crisis. His press conferences reflected that sober, apologetic message throughout. Full-page company advertisements in national newspapers were stark and did not shirk from accountability for the unfolding situation.

In his apology on television McCain said this:

“Going through the crisis there are two advisers I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants. It’s not about money or legal liability; this is about our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food. This is a terrible tragedy. To those people who have become ill, and to the families who have lost loved ones, I want to express my deepest and most sincere sympathies. Words cannot begin to express our sadness for your pain.”

Maple Leaf also purchased airtime on national television to allow McCain to repeat that sober message.

“We know this has shaken your confidence in us. I commit to you our actions are guided by putting your interests first.” – Michael McCain.

His clear and honest performance was well-received by most. Instead of just another stuffed shirt behind a faceless company, people saw McCain as a human being, deeply affected by the tragedy. And they believed his commitment and his company’s vow to do better.

While not following a detailed communications plan as such, McCain was being guided by a set of company and personal values that led him and his management team in a correct direction. By accepting blame early he stepped out in front and took control of the message before others could.

Without necessarily knowing it, McCain was following an ideal communications path to take during a crisis, one that probably saved the company.

How to communicate/How not to communicate

There may not be comparable companies to Maple Leaf in the North, but we’re not immune from major crises here. If they happen to your organization, how can you deal with them?

It goes without saying that taking preventive measures to avoid a crisis is always the best approach—but whether there is fault to assign or not, bad things can and do happen every day. When a crisis occurs, it helps to have a ready-to-use management plan that includes a communications strategy.

Diana Pisciotta, in How to Communicate in a Crisis, says that as part of a crisis management plan, every organization should have a strategy in place that considers four basic questions:

  • What could go wrong?
  • Who’s in charge?
  • What’s the strategy?
  • Who are the spokespeople?

Pisciotta recommends determining key messages to provide an explanation of what went wrong and to offer an expression of concern for the impact the situation has had on others. Like the communications path that Maple Leaf chose, she says key messages should also include a commitment to fix the issue and to offer an expression of confidence in your firm’s ability to do better. If warranted, offer a sincere apology.

For an example of how not to respond during a crisis, one can look at BP executive Tony Hayward’s response after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Ben Geier, in a Fortune Magazine article, called it perhaps the worst apology of all time.

While noting he was sorry for the massive disruption the disaster had caused in people’s lives, Hayward also offered this to a television reporter: “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

People were incensed that Hayward focused on how the explosion and spill had affected him and not how it had ravaged the environment, damaged the oil industry and killed people. It was a statement that followed him and the company throughout the crisis. He would resign from BP later that year.

While it doesn’t always make sense to have your CEO in the line of fire, there are some important takeaways organizations can learn from the differences between how Hayward and how McCain handled communications during a crisis. Here are some quick suggestions.

In a crisis be quick to respond and offer clear communications. Guide your communications by your organization’s values so, unless your organization is a legal firm, don’t let lawyers do the talking for you. Express sympathy sincerely. Be honest and direct.

And if something is your fault, own up to it right away and commit to fix it.

Photo credit: Press Agency Photographer