XL tainted meat: how NOT to handle a crisis

by Neil Everton

‘No one is available for that today’. Seven words that help ensure the debate over the wholesomeness of Canada’s beef products stays in the headlines.

The ‘no one’ is either of the brothers Brian and Lee Nilsson, co-CEOs of XL Foods. The ‘that’ is the biggest red-meat recall in Canada’s history. At least 15 Canadians have fallen ill with E Coli after eating meat from an XL plant.

The company issued a statement accepting responsibility for the tainted beef. They acknowledged shortcomings in food-safety practices. But when the media asked for interviews with the brothers, the response from the company was ‘They’re just not interested. OK?’

Not OK. By ducking the cameras the brothers are falling further and further behind the story. They are allowing an information vacuum to form. And that vacuum is being filled by stories from present and former employees about taking health risks with raw meat in order to keep up with the relentless pace of the production line. When the stories about workers who don’t have time to clean their knives dry up, there are stories from the trade union calling for a public inquiry.

With hindsight, one of the brothers told a farming trade paper, there may have been a better way to handle communications.

You think?

The Nilsson brothers were not exactly in uncharted territory. Four years ago Maple Leaf foods sold tainted meat products that killed 22 people. But Michael McCain, the boss of Maple Leaf foods, faced the cameras and microphones and made sure he was seen and heard to be involved, concerned, compassionate and focused on fixing the problem. McCain set the gold standard for how to deal with a communication crisis.

The Nilsson brothers and their advisors clearly missed Crisis Communications 101.

Click here to download our free White Paper on Crisis Communications, which looks deeper at the Maple Leaf Foods crisis.

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