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.