Tag Archives: Listeriosis

Crisis & Empathy Goffman Style

I’ve been thinking a lot about Maple Leaf Foods and its crisis communication response following the listeria outbreak. I’ve posted about the political dimensions of this event already, but even while working through these reactions I was having a hard time reconciling: (a) my admiration for how the company handled the crisis (admiration in terms of how it relied so well on best practices for communicating during a health emergency) with (b) a sense of unease about the dramaturgical components of the response – the ways in which actors (individuals or organizations) seek to manage the impressions others have of them through a series of carefully staged performances. I’m drawing here primarily on the writings of the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman (see especially his seminal book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life). 

Here’s Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain in the video news release the company posted on YouTube:

Several points worth mentioning here.

1. From the perspective of effective crisis communication, Maple Leaf’s McCain was immediately visible and accessible to the media. Crises such as this one are all about framing, and if you are not the first to establish the conceptual parameters of what the issue is about, then you will have to react to the ways the issue/event has been framed by others. And once a frame has been established it’s awfully difficult to change.

2. McCain immediately called a media conference and before speculating on what may have caused the outbreak he expressed concern for all of those affected. The demonstration of empathy, crisis communicators will tell you, is absolutely paramount to effective leadership in times of emergency. McCain then went on to explain what the organization was doing about the problem today and where the investigation would go over the period that followed. 

3. Responsibility for what happened was absorbed entirely by the company. McCain stated clearly that the failure was an internal one – it was not a result of bad public policy (the meat inspectors union and many others in the food industry have argued otherwise) or any other external forces. Unlike the case of the Tylenol poisonings of the early 1980s, where the crisis was caused by others and responsibility for a resolution was generalized to the entire industry (leading eventually to the adoption of tamper proof packaging — a cost not just to Johnson & Johnson but their competition as well), this was a crisis caused in-house and dealt with entirely in-house. This not only helped to mitigate any possible reactions by the government to reconsider its policy action on meat inspections (giving the industry more self-monitoring power), but it also effectively protected the values of all those brands which source their meat from Maple Leaf (McDonalds, Kirkland/Costco, Schneider’s, to name just a few). I would argue that it was a crisis response strategy designed to manage the policy process, to manage consumer expectations and protect market share.

Here’s where Goffman may be handy. There are several elements to the dramaturgical performance, but a few are noteworthy.

1. Goffman argues that the actor must demonstrate a genuine “belief” in the part s/he is playing. Although it is difficult for others to ascertain whether or not the performer believes what they are doing to be authentic, they overcome this perpetual uncertainty by making specific references to sincerity.

2. They must also maintain what he calls “expressive control,” to stay ‘in character’ and convey the correct signals and mitigate the occasional compulsion they may have to communicate misleading ones that might detract from the performance.

3. As in a theatrical performance, the management of impression requires the actor/individual to pay careful attention to settings, clothing, words, and nonverbal actions. In the video above, McCain appears not in the setting of a high-powered executive but in what looks to be his own living room – the colours of the set elicit warmth and the dress shirt is pressed but there’s no tie or jacket. As my colleague and good friend in PR Bernie Gauthier argues, “clothes speak by allowing people to communicate some things about themselves, their status, and their lifestyle” (OK, it’s a back-handed plug: Bernie’s argument is in his chapter “More than words: Why image matters so much in politics,” part of a collection of debates about controversies in communication studies co-edited by yours truly). They also convey affect and articulate a ‘sense’ of sincerity.

Maple Leaf’s response to the outbreak was a brilliant demonstration of why organizations develop and pre-test crisis communication plans. There is no question that a plan was in place long before the crisis hit, and I suspect PR scholars will come to rank this among the “best practice” cases in crisis communication.

The issue to which I keep returning in my mind is the dramaturgical aspect of empathy, i.e., of whether authenticity and sincerity can be “operationalized” as part of a strategic plan, as this case surely illustrates. Of course, we will never know how truly heartfelt McCain’s response was – it surely seemed that way and I won’t dare from the sidelines pass judgement on the character of the man. We would also do well to look at what happens when empathy isn’t operationalized as part of a crisis communication plan – Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, please stand up. Lastly, Goffman’s assertion that “the stage presents things that are make believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed” and his more provocative argument that “the individual puts on his show for the benefit of other people” is eerily resonant.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Food-borne illness, Politics

Politicizing the public service a danger to public health

Two news items today worth noting. The first story, from the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, reports that the Tories have clamped down on public servants during the election, “muzzling” them from speaking at conferences, to scientific meetings, or in other public engagements. The story quotes Myriam Massabki, a spokesperson with the Privy Council Office, who argues the PCO rationale is to prevent public servants from speaking up about policy issues that may influence voter decisions during the election campaign. 

The timing of the announcement is important – the Conservatives are still dealing with blowback from the agriculture minister’s conference call faux pas, and most attribute the leak of the minister’s comments to an axe-grinding bureaucrat or staffer (this is as yet unproven and we may never know the source). Regardless, the announcement will most certainly produce a chilling effect within the public service and exacerbate already strained relations with the ruling party (of course, this assumes the Conservative will carry their 2-week lead in the polls through to election day).

The other item worth mentioning in this context is from CTV. The story is about a forthcoming commentary in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Dr. Kumanan Wilson, the Canada Research Chair in Public Health Policy, and Dr. Jennifer Keelan, both of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Professors Wilson and Keelan ask why the federal agriculture minister and the president of Maple Leaf Foods, the company linked to the outbreak, have been the faces of the outbreak for both the media and the public rather than the government’s own chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones.

Good question.

“There’s a reason why we want our public health officials and our public health office to be in the lead on public health issues,” Wilson and Keelan argue. “When you have that situation, you are less likely to make other kinds of compromises for other reasons. The primary goal will be to improve public health.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada Act allows the chief public health officer to issue annual reports to Parliament and to communicate directly with the public concerning public health issues. Yet, Butler-Jones is more than just the country’s leading public health officer – he is also a deputy minister, precisely the kind of public servant the PCO/Tories are intending to muzzle from speaking on matters of public interest.
The irony here is that had Butler-Jones been the government’s public face of the issue and not the agriculture minister, the Tories would have saved themselves days of apologies and distractions, and improved the possibility of scoring that elusive majority. 

As an aside, it’s noteworthy that the headline in the delivery copy of the Citizen read “PCO tightens muzzle on PS for campaign” while the online version (at time of writing) read: “Tories tighten muzzle on PS for campaign.” A minor distinction, but an important one, especially if my hunch is right that many readers won’t know what the PCO is or the role it plays.

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Low Hazard/High Outrage?

A public health crisis or a crisis in communication? The listeriosis outbreak in Canada lends credence to Peter Sandman’s formula that risk f = hazard + outrage. Expectations of a growing death toll were confirmed today with news of an infant death in Manitoba. Yet just yesterday morning the issue seemed to be dipping below the threshold of scientific concern with the re-opening of the Maple Leaf Foods plant that was at the centre of the crisis.  But there’s a big difference, Sandman argues, between hazards and outrage. Where hazards are based on the technical assessments of experts, outrage operates in the more contingent and uncertain arena of public opinion. When news broke late last night that in August, at the height of the crisis, Tory agriculture minister Gerry Ritz cracked inappropriate and insensitive remarks in a conference call with scientists, risk communication managers, and policy strategists, the issue was thrust back into the glare of the media spotlight at high velocity.

That the Minister’s remarks were leaked partway through the election campaign suggests that even when scientific assessments of risk may be dissipating, as a communications issue they can create new and unexpected political problems. It will be interesting to see whether there will be any fallout from Ritz’s remarks – although victims are calling for the minister’s resignation, the PM refuses to apologize, dismissing his minister’s comments as “clearly inappropriate” but also arguing that the comments “shouldn’t detract from the good work that he has done to get on top and to understand this matter, to improve the system and to communicate publicly with Canadians and to make sure government officials are all doing their jobs.” Conservative strategists must be wincing at what is yet another blunder in a campaign of missteps and apologies.

With this latest development, will opposition parties, interest groups and civil society organizations concerned about food security and public health be able to put the government’s recent controversial changes to food safety regulations onto the electoral agenda?

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