All in Blogging and Crises

Maple Leaf Foods (not a client) today launched a blog in response to the 2008 Listeria deaths caused by eating its deli meats and, as with much of how the company handled the crisis, it is a very good model for the language and tone of effective messaging . . . frank, honest and contrite. (Although its design is quite lackluster.)

The first post is by CEO Michael McCain and here is how it begins: "Since August 2008 twenty-one Canadians have died after eating Maple Leaf deli meats contaminated with Listeria.  We all watched in horror as the worst food safety crisis in modern Canadian history rolled across the country." Now that's frank and the antithesis of how many companies begin apologies after serious events.

Later in the post Mr. McCain writes "This was by far the most awful event in the one hundred year history of our company.  I can’t properly describe the overwhelming sense of grief and responsibility we all felt … I felt, personally (emphasis added).  You may remember seeing me on television back then, apologizing for the tragedy and vowing to develop the most comprehensive anti-Listeria program of any food company in Canada." He then goes on to outline in details the changes Maple Leaf has made to reduce Listeria findings in its plants.

Even more significant he actually raises three subsequent issues related to Maple Leaf Foods' safety performance that most people had likely forgotten.

Textbook . . .

Who says Canadians aren't fun and inventive?

A scandal of sorts broke out this past week when Canada's national newspaper uncovered some perfectly legal, but ethically ambiguous, $5400 donations by children to the campaign of a candidate for the Liberal Party's leadership. By the end of the week, some resourceful wag had created a spoof 'Youth for Vope' website. The spoof site included testimonials from eight-year-olds like this: "When I found $5,400 in a brown envelope on a chair in a restaurant, I knew right away that the best way to use it was in support of Joe Volpe!" The site was taken down after the Volpe campaign threatented the domain registrar with legal action.

Not, it would seem, a smart move.

Mirror sites have appeared almost as quickly. So, the legal action had little impact and in lawyers' minds little merit in law. And now the Liberal Party is likely to face a thousand digital cuts as bloggers and pundits alike question the efficacy and political virtue of a democratic party shutting down dissent.  

For a short discussion of the whole thing, read Ron Hyndman's post from yesterday.

My colleagues Ian Barr, Darren Leroux and I participated in a conference last week on blogging and corporate communications. I see that Ian beat me to the punch in posting about one of the panels he attended. The session I sat in on about "managing crises in the blogosphere", brought to light some interesting stuff for any company which finds itself the target of a blog assault. (As an aside, there was agreement in the room that 'blogosphere' is a ridiculous word and should be excised from the online lexicon.) I took away a singular set of ideas (thanks in large measure to Christopher Barger from IBM's corporate communications group whose blog, ironically, I can't find!) which can help guide strategy for managing an aggressive blogger.

The conversation taking place today in the blogosphere -- there's that awful word again -- is individual, with a character and language all its own. Blogs by their nature are personal and passionate. More important for managing corporate reputation, they are also inherently viral.

So . . . a company responding to a blog-driven attack can't do a number of things:

  1. It can't reply with the formal authoritative tone and voice of the corporate news release.
  2. It can't respond with full corporate force (as the French might say a bas les avocats!) . . . or it can if it wants to go to war with a wider, more hostile blog world.
  3. It can't go it alone. The best defence for a company is other people coming to its defence.
  4. It can't assume the CEO or another senior executive is the best person to "speak" online about the issue. In fact, as Barger pointed out, sometimes the best spokesperson online may be the lowest ranked person who can reasonably be expected to know something about the issue being raised by the rogue blogger.
  5. It can't believe that winning the blog skirmish means winning the war. The issue won't disappear because what starts online, remains always online.

To counter five "can't dos" I will have to come up with about twice as many rules of the road for managing blog-hosted attacks.

Anyone care to kick it off?

Jeff Jarvis (creator of Entertainment Weekly) raises a red flag about the drawbacks of active engagement in blogs by corporate communications executives in his description of a run-in with Jennifer Davis of Dell. She wanted to discuss criticisms Jeff had made of Dell's service. Unfortunately her call not only raised questions about Dell's service -- and a flurry of critical comments about Dell by other bloggers -- but also raised further issues about Dell's intentions, as Davis put it, to look at "ways to leverage the blogopshere.” As Jeff grumbled "Leverage us? How? To promote products, she said. In other words, they’ll use it to sell." Let's be careful about what we counsel!