The research is being led by Terry Flynn, associate professor of communications management at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, who specializes in crisis preparedness and crisis leadership (Maple Leaf Foods has no affiliation with Flynn or any of the research).
From August 27th to September 2nd — just as the outbreak was being reported in the media — Leger Marketing interviewed 1,511 Canadians, a representative sample of the country's population. The research found a 99% general awareness of the listeria outbreak that has so far been the underlying cause of 18 deaths. Sixty-six percent of Canadians said they had watched an ad either on TV or online in which Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain apologized to Canadians. Respondents were then divided into two groups: those who had purchased a Maple Leaf product in the last six months, and those that hadn't.
A snapshot of some of the research findings:
Of those respondents who had purchased a Maple Leaf product in the last six months and watched the CEO on TV or online, 76% of them said he was credible. Those who had purchased the products but hadn't seen the CEO on TV, 55% said he was credible. “That is a 21% credibility difference, because of PR strategy; that is a direct effect,” Flynn told PRWeek.
Of those who hadn't purchased a Maple Leaf product in the last six months but saw the ad, 66% said he was credible. Of those who hadn't bought a product and hadn't seen an ad, 13% said he was credible. “Their strategy of putting [Michael McCain] out front was very effective and successful in being able to strengthen those customers Maple Leaf had a relationship with and even extend into those they hadn't,” Flynn said. There was also a strong correlation between those that believed he was credible and their intent to purchase in the next six months, added Flynn.
Leger Marketing is now back in the field, tracking consumer response a month post-outbreak. “I think Maple Leaf Foods has redefined the Canadian model in terms of crisis preparedness,” said Flynn. “My whole hypothesis is that organizations that have strong pre-crisis relationships are able to weather a crisis and, in fact, maintain [customer] relationships through the crisis.” Flynn said he plans to submit his research to academic journals.