Maple Leaf: The Power of Values-Driven Communications in Times of Crisis

Maple Leaf: The Power of Values-Driven Communications in Times of Crisis

By Cynthia Parkanyi

“The Crisis Plan doesn’t cover Day 3”

August 2008 was the beginning of a long and difficult period at Maple Leaf Foods—with Listeriosis discovered in a growing number of their products and the source of the contamination still unknown, it was a stressful time to be a spokesperson. A 30-year veteran in communications, Linda Smith has developed global crisis management programs for a variety of companies and was a company spokesperson and communications consultant to Maple Leaf Foods during this unprecedented event in the company’s history.

“We didn’t over-think things; we focussed on getting the facts out in a timely and real way,” explained Smith to the crowd at the IABC Ottawa event at the Empire Grill on November 24. Smith went on to offer insights into what happened, her perspectives on how they dealt with the crisis and the lessons they learned.

“We had to adapt for sure. But it was the underlying corporate core values that guided us through the crisis.” These guiding values include:

  • Do what is right.
  • Dare to be transparent.
  • Share information.

Smith explained that they chose to follow the established and entrenched core values in dealing with the crisis. Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain preferred to openly speak to the media and the public and opted not to have messages reviewed by lawyers before going on air.

So, how did they manage their messaging? “We focussed on talking to people face-to-face every day. The media wanted instant access to a spokesperson, and we gave them that.” As a result, the lion’s share of their communications used broadcast media. Their first television ad featuring CEO Michael McCain talking with heartfelt sincerity and taking full responsibility caused quite a stir. Smith explained that “the ‘folksiness’ of the ad was not by intent – it was because it was done so fast.”

They also used, to a lesser degree, print and online media. “Let’s put it on YouTube. That was our social media strategy. We did not even think of twitter,” quipped Smith, “Things have changed. We would definitely use twitter if it happened today.”

According to Smith, by acting in an ethical manner, staying true to entrenched values and owning their mistakes, Maple Leaf Foods was able to earn the trust of the media, customers and employees alike during and after the outbreak. Food for thought.

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