What Is a Crisis?
• A situation that has
reached a critical
• Three types of
Why Bother with Crisis Planning?
• Management will
be prepared in a
• Can support
vision and mission
Why is PR Important During a Crisis?
Enables an organization to..
• Deal with internal
and external publics
• Uphold and maintain
Maple Leaf Foods
• Maple Leaf Foods issues news
release on August 17, 2008,
notifying public that products at
their Toronto facility may have been contaminated
• Recall begins immediately after positive confirmation
by public health agency.
• There are 19 deaths and more than 60 cases of
MLF representatives made available to media:
• Linda Smith (Spokesperson)
• Michael H. McCain (CEO)
• Lynda Kuhn (InvestorInquiries Contact)
• Michael Vel (CFO/VP)
Seventeen official news releases and 45 stories
in the Toronto Star between August and
“When listeria was discovered in the product,
we launched immediate recalls to get it off the
shelf, then we shut the plant down. Tragically,
our products have been linked to illnesses and
loss of life. To Canadians who are ill and to
families who have lost loved ones, I offer my
deepest sympathies. Words cannot begin to
express our sadness for your pain…
“By this week, our best efforts failed and we are
deeply sorry. This is the toughest situation we
have faced in 100 years as a company. We
know this has shaken your confidence in us; I
commit to you that our actions are guided by putting your interests
—Michael H. McCain, CEO Maple Leaf Foods, August 2008
By August 26, the Toronto Star reports that Maple Leaf Foods
was “winning applause for its proactive and open public
“It's a tragedy; people got very sick, people died, and that's
bad news no matter how you look at it. But a company in that
kind of a crisis can gain or lose a lot. They can lose everything
or they can gain some public trust if they're handling the
problem the best they can...I think Maple Leaf Foods did that.”
—interview with J. Fred Kuntz, Toronto Star editor-in-chief at
the time of the crisis, October 2011
• Leak at facility in England,
which may have caused
discovered in January 2006.
• Notification made to FSA
on June 19, 2006.
• Product recall begins on
• There are 45 illnesses
believed to be associated
with the recall.
• British media began to report by July that
Cadbury CEO Todd Stitzer and the company
were being criticized for the huge
Planning for Crisis
Being prepared is the first step to success.
• Mitigate impact with issues management
vigilance and open communication.
• Organizations better equipped to respond with
proactive solutions to reduce risk and policies to
react swiftly to crisis situations.
―Given that the potential for damage increases
exponentially if it takes time to react effectively,
Bernstein argues that it is better to prepare for a
crisis than to simply react.‖
Reacting to Crisis
Transparency, Reaction Time, Leadership
• Building cultures of cooperation and
collaboration among key decision-makers is
critical to emergency preparedness.
Strategies: Cadbury’s Risky PR
Approach That Did Not Pay Off
• Cadbury’s crisis communications methods and
message deemed unethical by consumers,
stakeholders and media.
• Decision to remain silent and accept
responsibility did not resonate well with
• Lack of information and delays caused
speculation and hysteria, as contaminated
chocolate unknowingly consumed over Easter
Strategies: Cadbury’s Short-Term
Thinking and Lack of Transparency
Long-term cultures of cooperation and collaboration
among key decision makers builds trust.
• Delay in Cadbury’s response time severely limited
public relations efforts to mitigate risk.
• Cadbury’s PR efforts and good regard for historic
company outweighed by public outcry over lack of
In Court of Public Opinion, Cadbury’s
Crisis Communications Deemed a Fail
• Cadbury’s decision to remain silent for months
a risk that did not play out in their favour.
• Duck-and-dodge tactic ultimately severely
damaging to reputation and broke trust of
―If not dealt with, the damage done by crises will not go away; they will
become long-term reputation issues.‖
— Marra, Francis J. (1989)
Strategies: Maple Leaf Foods
Effective PR Strategy Well Executed
• Immediate, transparent and proactive
communications proof that Maple Leaf Foods
had an emergency plan in place to deal with
• Strategic plan executed across a variety of
media outlets, CEO made available to media,
and openly apologized for endangering public.
Strategies: Maple Leaf Foods Uses CEO’s
Presence to Successfully Add Credibility
• Use of familiar spokespeople and the CEO as
key authorities reaffirm public’s perception of
organization’s honesty, integrity and
Strategies: Maple Leaf Foods Long Term
Commitment to Consumers
• Maple Leaf Foods successfully
made strong long-term efforts
to repair broken trust by
communicating their “Food
Safety Pledge” to consumers,
investors, shareholders and
• By firmly stating organizational
priorities, Maple Leaf Foods
executed a top-down approach
to corporate food-safety values.
• By providing more than short-term solutions (press conferences, public
apology), and building a long-term strategy, the company is upholding
values on an ongoing basis and at all levels of the company.
In CourtofPublicOpinion, Maple
LeafFoods Crisis Communications
Deemed a Pass
A crisis well managed, praised by industry analysts,
media and consumers alike
• Maple Leaf Foods handled their contamination
crisis with transparency, swift action and public
accountability, which resonated positively with
Role ofthe PR Practitioner
• The career of a PR practitioner can be a multi-faceted
• A well-respected public relations professional is a key
contributor to the executive management of any
• The PR professional must be able to deliver a
message that is timely, authentic and empathetic.
―There’s two tenets that you seek to reinforce. One is timeliness, and the
other one is authenticity of message — and what people need to hear
emotionally, for the empathy side of the equation.‖
—interview with Linda Smith, Maple Leaf Foods spokesperson at the
time of the crisis, October 2011
A PR practitioner can, with the support of all management, craft
and execute a plan that will help an organization weather any
An effective crisis communications plan, well-executed, will
ensure that the organization and its PR representatives are
• Prepared to act
• True to the organization’s mission and values
• Trusted and valued within the organization
• Available to and trusted by the public and the media
It is in a crisis that the value of the communications plan and
the character of an organization will be most tested.
Today we will be discussing an important function of public relations: crisis communications. Here’s what you need to know when it’s not business as usual.
Jonathan Bernstein describes a crisis as a “situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, damage reputation or negatively impact share value.” *Seeing as crises can happen unexpectedly, organizations are wise to prepare for situations that could affect them negatively.According to Glen M. Broom, there are three types of crises: immediate, emerging and sustained.Immediate crises happen very suddenly with little or no time for research and planning. Examples include accidents or natural disasters.Emerging crises are those that allow for a bit more time for preparation and research. When dealing with emerging crises, the goal is to take action before it reaches a critical stage. An example would be low morale in the office.Sustained crises are those that can carry on for months or years, despite continuous efforts to resolve the issue. An example would be rumours of layoffs or downsizing within an organization. *http://www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/docs/the_10_steps_of_crisis_communications.html
If an unexpected event or crisis occurs that affects an organization, it is crucial to manage the effects of the event on management and stakeholders. Crisis planning allows the organization to have a plan in place in case of a crisis. This function of public relations can also support the vision and mission of an organization. The organization’s mission is important because it gives the organization a sense of purpose and direction. It should reflect the values of the organization. The mission usually serves as a commitment to an organization’s target publics. The vision is more of an overview of organizational goals and usually includes very broad goals for the future. For example, the Canadian Cancer Society’s mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. Its vision is to create a world where no Canadian fears cancer.* Public relations can assist the organization in achieving its mission and vision by communicating significant information, which will allow stakeholders and target audiences to be informed on what’s happening and how it’s affecting them. This is one of the most important reasons why crisis planning is important. By having a plan in case a crisis occurs, an organization is better able to achieve its mission and pursue its vision.*www.cancer.ca
During a crisis, public relations is more crucial than ever. An organization has an ongoing responsibility to maintain a dialogue with its stakeholders. This is especially important during a crisis. In order to uphold and maintain an organization’s reputation, it is important to communicate relevant information to stakeholders and target publics.During a crisis situation, a crisis communication plan will allow management to deal with internal and external publics. The response to external publics is important, but it is also important for an organization to reach out to its employees, to inform them of what is happening and how management is working to resolve the issues. Lack of planning could lead to more damage to the organization than the crisis itself. In the absence of information provided by the organization, stakeholders will find their own information, not all of it necessarily correct or reflecting positively on the organization.
Here are two scenarios to help you better understand the importance of crisis communications.
Maple Leaf Foods issued 17 official news releases between August 17 and October 9, and many of these releases announced media availability to key players within the company. (These documents are still available on the company website.) News releases addressed the financial impact of the recall, and offered industry analysts an opportunity to speak with VP and CFO Michael Vels. Most important, and from the very beginning — after the sixth day, to be exact — McCain addressed the media and the public. He was sincere, apologetic and reaffirmed his company’s commitment to quality. During that time, the Toronto Star ran approximately forty-five separate articles that addressed a wide range of topics relating to the recall, including articles on legal opinions and financial challenges, governance gaps in the food industry, health concerns, public and political outcry, and updates on products and sanitation efforts. By August 24, Maple Leaf was winning praise for its handling of the crisis by public relations consulting firms such as Media Profile and business schools such as the Rotman School of Management.The Star reported that it was in mid to late July when Toronto Public Health took first notice of public illness and inspectors collected food samples. By early August, food samples tested positive for listeria. Maple Leaf was made aware of the problem on August 16 and issued a recall on August 17.One day after the initial recall, that Maple Leaf expanded its notice. According to the Star, this delay between June and August should have been better handled, but there was some miscommunication between public health agencies. Because of this, the crisis became a long-term governance and public policy issue that verged into political territory. On September 17, an official news release stated that production would resume at the facility in question. Maple Leaf CEO McCain said: “Throughout this incident we have steadfastly placed consumers' interests first…Now we must completely restore their confidence in the quality and integrity of our products.”
On December 16, 2008, the Star’s Robyn Doolittle reported that Maple Leaf was launching a television campaign “featuring an earnest-looking” McCain. This marked the company’s shift in focus to issues and reputation management.Here is part of his address to the public:
Fred Kuntz, who was editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star at the time of the crisis, recently spoke with me about his paper’s coverage of the crisis and offered his comments on how Maple Leaf handled the situation. Here is an excerpt from our interview:[include Kevin’s interview with Star editor-in-chief immediately after this slide]
The second case we are examining is a crisis that befell UK candy manufacturer Cadbury. In 2006, seven Cadbury products were said to have possibly come into contact with salmonella at a facility in England. The events that led to and followed this crisis occurred after Cadbury’s de-merger from Schweppes and before its takeover by American conglomerate Kraft Foods. Because Kraft has not archived Cadbury news releases, much of the information available comes from news coverage.What was most alarming about this recall was not the number of people who died from the crisis. In fact, no one died — people only became ill from eating Cadbury chocolate. What is most alarming about this case is that the recall came after five months of a leak being discovered. Millions of chocolate candy treats were left on store shelves and made available all through the Easter season, when chocolate candies sell the most; this occurred all along when Cadbury knew that their products were tainted by salmonella!
It’s difficult to determine whether or not the media dealt with a consistent source of contact within the company, because none of the news reports actually names a Cadbury spokesperson. Especially alarming is the fact that when a spokesperson was quoted, rarely was there any accountability. In a BBC report from June 26, a Cadbury spokesperson said that “If there are [any] people who have eaten one of these chocolate bars today they should not worry” but ironically, within the story, a free helpline was provided by Cadbury.
A story in the Sunday Star quoted Cadbury’s European president, Matt Shattock, who said “We have no evidence that anyone has been ill from eating the [recalled chocolate].” He added that the level of salmonella posed no threat to consumers, and that it was below the level requiring notification to health authorities. Valarie Elliot of The Times of Londonquoted an unnamed spokesperson in another article, who said, “We feel we have done all we can to remove these from sale.” Elliot’s story also said that the company was still refusing “to reveal the names of other products that may be affected.” On July 30, the Mail on Sunday reported that Todd Stitzer, Cadbury’s CEO at the time, was “expected to apologize to investors and customers.” On August 2, the Birmingham Post reported that Cadbury said that some of its recalled product lines would be returning to shop shelves. In 2007, a Cadbury spokesperson again said that comment would not be made, this time because it was on the verge of facing prosecution by the Birmingham City Council. On July 16, 2007, BBC News confirmed that Birmingham and Herefordshire councils had brought nine charges against Cadbury and that the company was being fined one million pounds “for food and hygiene offences.” In the same report, it was reported that a Cadbury spokesperson “apologized and offered the company's ‘sincere regrets’ to the people who were taken ill.” The spokesperson was quoted: “Quality has always been at the heart of our business, but the process we followed in the UK in this instance has shown to be unacceptable…We have apologized for this and do so again today. In particular, we offer our sincere regrets and apologies to anyone who was made ill as a result of this failure.”
In the Mail on Sunday article on July 30 that reported that Cadbury’s CEO was expected to apologize, it was written that the incident was seen as a huge embarrassment to Cadbury and that CEO Stitzer was being criticized for failing to lead the company's response. In addition to their being an immediate loss of consumer confidence in the company, most notable in reports that claim consumers were considering a law suit over the salmonella contamination, even Britain’s leading food safety expert, Professor Sir Hugh Pennington, said he was very surprised Cadbury hadn’t withdrawn the chocolate when the contamination was first discovered.
Critical situations can damage a corporation’s reputation and bottom line. Crisis communications planning is a critical component in mitigating the impact of a crisis. Being prepared is the first step to success. According to Francis J. Marra, “Ideally, emergency communication policies involve significant pre-emergency planning and post-emergency evaluation with relevant publics.”* Emergency preparedness exercises can foster an organizational culture that is rooted in transparency, issues management vigilance and clear lines of communication across all levels of organizational leadership. They also help to forecast potential issues. [who says this?**] According to xxx xxxx, “Given that the potential for damage increases exponentially if it takes time to react effectively, Bernstein argues that it is better to prepare for a crisis than to simply react”By making conscious decisions to prepare for any form of crisis, organizations are better equipped to respond with proactive solutions and information. Preparation can reduce risk and provide management with policies they can follow to react swiftly to crisis situations through their actions and their answers to criticism. *Marra, Francis J. (1989). **Bernstein, Jonathan L.
Cadbury’s delayed response time severely limited their public relations efforts to mitigate risk. Their efforts were outweighed by the public outcry, which stemmed from a lack of corporate transparency to concerned consumers.Like Cadbury, Maple Leaf Foods also had a food crisis. But unlike Cadbury, Maple Leaf Foods had a professional crisis communications strategy, which they executed swiftly and compassionately following the listeria outbreak. Using a multi-faceted communications approach, and speaking with a unity of purpose, Maple Leaf Foods took their message to a variety of media outlets, made their CEO available to answer questions from the media, and openly apologized for endangering consumer safety.
Unfortunately, in Cadbury’s case, the corporation chose to withhold information about salmonella contamination of their chocolate bars for an unacceptably long period of time. When it was later revealed that Cadbury had waited six months before alerting the public that their chocolate had been contaminated, consumers were appalled by their unethical behaviour. This behaviour caused much speculation and hysteria, as consumers had already unknowingly consumed much of the contaminated chocolate over the busy Easter season. As Valarie Elliott of The Times wrote, “Cadbury informed England’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) about the potential contamination of its product on June 19, 2006, and the recall came on June 23, 2006. However, the leak which caused the contamination was discovered in January 2006.” Cadbury’s delay in publicly responding to the potential health crisis could be attributed either to a blatant disregard for consumer health or a lack of understanding of the situation, or to planning or disunity among key decision-makers.
By delaying Cadbury’s response time to the admission of contamination, the corporation opened the floodgates for rumors and speculation to fester. Looking at the systems approach…“too often particular subsystems (such as legal and finance) dominate an organization’s response to an emergency, and, again, a less than optimal response to the situation is made” Marra, Francis J. (1989).
One crisis communications tactic, which was highly unsuccessful in Cadbury’s case, is to withhold admitting to fault if it appears the situation will pass undiscovered. In other words, admit nothing, deny everything. It is clear Cadbury first prescribed to that strategy. When the story first broke, their spokesperson refused to comment on the accusations that Cadbury’s admission to salmonella contamination was delayed. According to Elliot of The Times, “it took the company until Thursday [June 22, 2006] evening to agree to a recall.” She added, “Most of the suspect chocolate is already likely to have been eaten,” given the much of it would have been consumed during the Easter holiday. The Cadbury spokesperson, according to Elliot, “said that there were logistical reasons for delaying a public announcement…We have followed the regulations. The FSA will have to decide if we need a new regulation and we are willing to work with them on that.” Although the Cadbury spokesperson openly admitted to delaying the public announcement, it excused that behaviour by citing a regulatory clause.Cadbury did not appear to be proactively communicating anything.
Loretta Ucelli explains that “all companies should undertake strategic emergency planning which will hopefully assist them in preventing a crisis.”* Unlike Cadbury, Maple Leaf Foods serves as a shining example of damage control and swift communications success in mitigating times of crisis.Through collaborative efforts between Maple Leaf Foods and the media industry, important messages were communicated to the public in a broad fashion across a variety of media outlets. This served Maple Leaf Foods well, as they were able to quickly reinstate public confidence in the reputation of their brand.*Ucelli, Loretta (2002).
A key indicator of Maple Leaf Foods’ crisis communications success was the targeted tactic of placing their CEO, Michael McCain, at the front of their organization’s communications, to deliver further weight and unity to their apology.“Identifying spokespersons, Bernstein believes that these should be the only ones authorized to speak for the company and should include the CEO.”*By bringing the CEO out from the confines and protection of the boardroom to stand at the front of the crisis and take responsibility for mistakes made by the company, Maple Leaf reaffirmed their previously good reputation. Rather than secrecy and rumours, the public perceived transparency and openness. When the CEO openly apologized to Maple Leaf customers, people listened.* [but where is this taken from??](Bernstein, Jonathan L).
The Maple Leaf Foods’ key Food Safety Pledge messaging was consistently reinforced in all of their crisis communications (press conferences, news releases, published apologies, CEO YouTube video, etc). In the broadcast made available on YouTube, McCain said, “I promised you that Maple Leaf will always put food safety first and we have. The recall is over and the problems that led to it have been fixed.”* The frequently repeated key message clearly communicated Maple Leaf’s values and ethical responsibilities to all concerned stakeholders. According to Loretta Ucelli, “A firm’s reputation and survival depends on their ability to communicate with employees, shareholders, and customers and that the chief executive must always take responsibility and act quickly to resolve the problem and minimize the impact.”**By committing to long-term “safety promise(s),” Maple Leaf Foods admitted their lapse in quality, but recommitted their focus on quality products that consumers can trust. This long-term commitment is undeniably essential to rebuilding and maintaining consumer confidence in Maple Leaf.*Doolittle, Robyn. (Toronto Star) **Ucelli, Loretta (2002).
The long-term reputation management practices of Maple Leaf Foods will certainly serve them well for decades to come. According to a Maple Leaf spokesperson, “It's all about transparency…We tried from the beginning to be transparent, and this is that continuing.” Robyn Doolittle of the Star noted that it was often reported that Maple Leaf Foods and CEO McCain drew “praise for crisis management. During the outbreak, Maple Leaf staged almost daily news conferences and purchased full-page ads and television spots.” The TorontoStar’s Dana Flavelle reported on Maple Leaf Foods public relations response to the crisis and noted that the company was “winning applause for its proactive and open public relations approach.”
The role of the PR professional in times of crisis is a multi-faceted journey, full of preparation tactics actualized, and real-time strategies rooted in public relations methodology. It is a job that requiresA public relations pro brings context and professionalism to the task of protecting the long-term reputation of a corporation. Ideally, that person is a key contributor to the executive management team. Linda Smith was Maple Leaf Food’s spokesperson at the time of their crisis. She spoke to us about how they delivered the company’s message:[add Kevin’s audio interview with Linda Smith here]
Any organization will best succeed by having a communications plan, both in the course of everyday business and in a crisis. The organization must present a clear, honest and consistent message, one that remains true to their declared mission and values.In a crisis, whoever represents an organization, be it the PR practitioner or the CEO working with PR, must be available to and trusted by an organization’s external publics. An organization is better able to respond quickly and effectively to a crisis and answer to the public with one voice when there is a culture of cooperation and collaboration. There must be trust and unity of purpose among key decision-makers. In the case of Maple Leaf Foods, a swift and transparent reaction to the listeria outbreak, and a well-received apology that the sincerity of the CEO cemented, resulted in the restoration of public confidence. Unfortunately for Cadbury, their delay in response time and ongoing secrecy lead to scandal and outrage and dealt a serious blow to the British chocolatiers’ reputation. Times of crisis bring out the true colours of corporations, as their responses can far outweigh any previous efforts to win consumer confidence, making a lasting impression on the minds of each potential customer, investor and stakeholder.