“I absolutely do not believe that this is a failure of the Canadian food safety system or the regulators,” McCain said in the news conference. “Certainly knowing there is a desire to assign blame, I want to reiterate that the buck stops here.” He went on to say that Canada has “excellent systems and processes in place, but this week it's our best efforts that failed, not the regulators or Canadian food safety system.”
Maple Leaf Foods referred requests for comment to Fleishman-Hillard Canada, which is handling media relations during the crisis. The key executive on the account is Linda Smith, EVP, senior partner, and regional director. An executive at Fleishman-Hillard declined comment on the story.
But Maple Leaf Foods should be given high marks for their quick and accountable response, according to Susan Sommers, president of susan sommers & associates as well as a PR instructor at the University of Toronto. “They have spoken to the media right away, acknowledged what happened, and what they know, and what they plan to do about it.”
She said Maple Leaf's approach (which has included quick product recalls, as well as full-page newspaper ads, TV spots, Web site updates, and frequent press conferences) is very similar to the “gold standard” of crisis communication she teaches in her PR course: the Tylenol tampering of 1982, which left seven people in Chicago dead after taking products laced with cyanide. The maker of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, rebounded a year later with a new triple-sealed package.
By playing its cards similarly, Sommers believe Maple Leaf Foods could in the end see a similar outcome: “They have an unbelievable opportunity after the crisis to use the media as a partner” to explain why such an outbreak will never happen again.
Jason MacDonald, VP of corporate and public affairs at Veritas Communications, agrees Maple Leaf Foods has done a good job communicating with the media. “I've spoken with reporters working on this story, and they've all said that Maple Leaf has been quick to respond to their calls,” said MacDonald.
But he said that they haven't done enough in educating the public about listeria—what the symptoms are, what they should do with existing Maple Leaf products in their fridge, for example. “Maple Leaf Foods are not medical professionals, but that is an important piece that has been missing [for them].”