Saturday, October 13, 2012

XL Foods - the crisis gift that keeps on giving

Why do I get the feeling that the owners of XL Foods are walking around with the following button on their clothes? See below

Public relation practitioners, or anyone interested in looking for examples on how not to handle a crisis can look no further. Introducing XL Foods, current candidates for the 2012 worst in crisis communications planning award. Caught in the middle of the largest beef recall in Canadian history, XL has demonstrated every characteristic of a company in complete communication denial. Anyone not familiar with the story, can click here or here for the latest updates.

XL Foods are doing everything an organization can do to worsen what should have been a simple case of apologizing for their mistakes, correcting the problem, and working very, very hard to get consumers and the general public back onside. It's incredible in this day and age that there are still organizations that believe in times of crisis, keeping quiet is the preferable method than dealing outright with the problem. Silence rarely works as a tactic, and simply provokes more questions, more intensity, and much more scrutiny. What is particularly amazing about the company's situation, is that the media and public sh*tstorm they are enduring could have easily been avoided. All XL had to do was follow the gold standard in crisis communications - particularly from a food industry perspective, as demonstrated by Maple Leaf Foods.

Watch how powerful an apology can be:

Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, was the face of the organization during the company's very public crisis. He expressed true remorse over the people who were sickened from the tainted Maple Leaf products. He made himself available to the media, and worked overtime to reassure a very sceptical public while simultaneously trying to contain damage to the brand. His communications team took full advantage of every available communication vehicle, including social media which was a very big deal at that time. The company recognized the importance of social media, and the impact it would have on the company's image, not to mention playing a pivotal role in its rehabilitation. Where are Brian and Lee Nilsson, owners of XL Foods? Do you know who they are? Have you seen them? Heard them speak? The media are even calling them out for their behaviour, wondering where they are. It’s incredibly difficult to reconcile the behaviour of XL in an age when social media itself can make a scandal or crisis remain in the public conscious much longer than a traditional news cycle. It does make you wonder if the communications team at XL are ignorant, or not being allowed to do their job.

From a societal perspective, it horrible to know people have been sickened from XL Foods tainted products. From a communications perspective, this strengthens the argument of not only have a strong communications plan in place, but also developing a crisis communications plan to avoid the mistakes demonstrated by XL. The XL brand may be irretrievably damaged, but there are still some valuable lessons pr practitioners can learn from this mess including:
1) Update your communications plan. If your organization doesn’t have a plan in place, write one - you won’t be sorry that you did. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should at least give you guidelines that you and your organization will be able to follow in any situation.
2) Develop a crisis communication plan. Even if you are told that your company won’t need one, do it anyway.
3) Understand that social media can be a benefit and a hindrance, but be vigilant about the latest developments and updates so you can use it to your advantage.
4) Silence is not golden in times of crisis.


  1. Great and timely post. You've got great fodder for week 11's assignment!

  2. Thanks Joanne, I appreciate the comment - I'm pretty sure you can understand that urge to write when an amazing topic presents itself!

  3. Awesome post! I think this is a great example of how companies experience some inertia after they've developed any kind of communication and then don't put as much importance in evaluating and growing from what they're doing. This probably relates well to one of the content strategy elements that we discussed in class this week - the one where you re-calibrate and re-focus.

  4. Hi Rosa- thanks for taking the time to comment! I honestly believe that this is a company that didn't put ANY thought into crisis communications. It's been both fascinating and horrifying to witness. I do think that if your organization is facing a situation similar to what XL is going though, there is no doubt that retracing your content strategy, re-focusing and re-calibrating will go a long way to helping solve the crisis. It's a shame XL couldn't or wouldn't learn the same lessons!