Trust, Accountability and a Brand in Crisis Control

The Maple Leaf Foods controversy over the Listeria illnesses and deaths is one that as business owners, we can all relate to- it is our worst nightmare to have a deadly incident or disease associated with our company’s brand. We may not agree with his actions, but we can imagine Michael McCain on that morning when he first heard that Listeria had been detected at one of his Maple Leaf plants. We can ask ourselves, when faced with a similar situation would our reflex reaction be to protect our company legally and take the “innocent until proven guilty” approach (similar to the Exxon Valdez debacle of 1989) or to take a risk and reach out to our customers, staff and the public and explain our plan of action and offer an apology?

These questions bring to mind the issues of financial and legal security and the importance of your brand- what sort of impact would either of the above decisions have on your company’s brand? Your brand is the essence of who you are as a company – it defines your business, relationships and products. For Maple Leaf Foods, as a processor of food for families across nation the most important aspects their brand needs to communicate to consumers are safety and trust. The Listeria outbreak created a major breach of trust among Maple Leaf consumers.

This past summer I had the opportunity to read the book The Speed of Trust, By Stephen M. Covey. The book focuses on creating trust in your personal and professional relationships and the benefits trust can have in the workplace and on your company’s brand. In the book Covey outlines the 13 Behaviors to Create Relationship Trust. As some of you may know, on August 23rd and 30th, open letters from Maple Leaf’s President and CEO, Michael McCain appeared in national and regional newspapers regarding the product recall and Maple Leaf’s Action Plan. Then on September 15th, McCain appeared on a prime time television ad speaking to Canadians about the Listeria outbreak and apologizing to those families who were directly affected. I noticed that McCain exhibited a number of Covey’s suggested behaviors while placing himself under the public spotlight.

ü  Talking Straight – McCain was upfront with the general public and his customers. He told the truth, erring on the side of disclosure and explaining what was being done to rectify the situation.

ü  Right Wrongs – McCain was quick to react and offered a public apology to everyone involved.

ü  Confront Reality – McCain was willing to discuss the tough stuff and confront Maple Leaf’s issues head on.

ü   Accountability – McCain held himself and Maple Leaf Foods responsible, resisting the urge to point fingers at others such as the inspection agencies or distribution channels. All of these behaviors are steps towards rebuilding trust in the Maple Leaf brand and served to make customers feel that their concerns have been acknowledged and that their safety is the highest priority.

However, what if McCain had taken a different approach and decided to focus on protecting Maple Foods financially? Openly admitting their company was at fault could result in legal and insurance liabilities, including lack of eligibility for coverage and controversy among investors. For this reason many business owners still believe that first and foremost it is their duty to protect the financial foundation of their company. However, if your customers no longer believe in your brand, is there anything left to protect?

Around the same time this summer another major incident occurred in Ontario causing a wave of negativity to spread throughout the community when multiple explosions ripped through the Sunrise Propane Facility in early August. The explosions left one dead, multiple injuries and forced hundreds families in the surrounding neighborhoods to evacuate their homes. Following the explosions residents and families of those injured were allegedly kept in the dark. Sunrise Propane offered up no explanation or information on the explosion, no public condolences and no information on what steps were being taken to increase safety measures. People across Ontario were outraged and while some of the fault may also lie with the city or the Propane and Gas Association, Sunrise Propane’s failure to publically address this issue could prove to be a costly decision in regards to the “trust capital” of their brand.

In light of the number of cases such as these Ontario’s government is currently reviewing a potential “Sorry Law”, if passed this law would make public apologies by organizations, groups and individuals exempt from evidence of liability in legal disputes. The benefits behind passing this Apology Act can be seen from both a legal and an emotional standpoint with the goals of acknowledging victims, promoting transparency and avoiding or shortening the legal process for all involved. Ontario wouldn’t be the first province to pass this law, B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba all have similar laws however Alberta currently does not. 




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