I’ll be moderating and speaking on a panel at the upcoming ACI’s Advanced Summit on Food Safety Regulatory Compliance in Chicago, June 28-29. Scott Rickman from Del Monte, public relations professionals and I will be presenting on "Effectively Responding to Negative Media Coverage: How to Avoid the Backlash" (If you plan to attend, register soon and contact me for a conference discount).
In my practice, I abide by two principles when involved with a case that has potential for negative media coverage:
1. Preservation of the Brand May Trump the Litigation: Even the most serious food-borne illness or consumer fraud claims may not be as significant as preservation of the client’s brand. And what may seem like a smart litigation strategy may not be in the best interest of the brand.
For example, ownership of a crisis may be the best way out for a company faced with a widespread food-borne illness outbreak. The 2008 Maple Leaf foods outbreak is a prime example. Maple Leaf foods is one of the largest food companies in Canada and was faced with a deadly nationwide listeria outbreak linked to deli meat processed at one of its plants. Its CEO, Michael McCain, famously took immediate ownership of the crisis, which lead to restoration of both the brand’s name and its stock value. Mr. McCain was quoted post mortem as saying:
“Going through the crisis there are two advisors I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants . . . . It’s not about money or legal liability, this is about being accountable for providing consumers with safe food.”
In other cases, a strategy that "sacrifices" a single product line or a single restaurant for the good of the chain or other product lines may be the right strategy.
Though right for the client, either strategy might be uncomfortable for the litigation team as it constitutes something close to an admission of liability. As one communications expert has said:
“[L]awyers need to understand that legal liability isn’t the only factor to consider in a crisis. But that’s not an easy pill for many lawyers to swallow. They believe future litigation is prejudiced if a CEO makes an apology . . . .”
Which leads me to my second principle:
2. Call the Communications/Public Relations Experts: Lawyers are multi-talented. However, lawyers are not experts in public relations. As illustrated above, the right strategy for a branded food business may prioritize a public relations strategy. The only way to formulate the best strategy for the client is to involve and listen to the entire crisis response team, including the communications/public relations experts.