This column is part of Globe Careers’ new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
In hindsight, the question that comes to mind is, “What were we thinking?”
In June, 2012, Labatt sent an e-mail to the Montreal Gazette. In the e-mail, we asked the Gazette to replace a photo on its website of accused murderer Luka Magnotta because, in this particular photo, he was holding a bottle of one of our best-known brands – Labatt Blue. At the time, we thought it was a reasonable request. We explained, to everyone who asked, that we simply wanted to protect our brand and disassociate it from such a heinous crime.
Our intentions were good, but the fallout certainly was not. Where did we go wrong?
Our objective was to preserve the positive relationship that Labatt Blue had with consumers and the Canadian public. Labatt Blue has been around since 1951, and it remains the best-selling Canadian beer in the world. It’s a brand worth protecting.
We made two mistakes. First, we assumed a crisis existed when it did not. Second, we approached this non-crisis in a way that was inconsistent with our values and the character of the brand we were trying to protect.
It’s easy to understand that we didn’t want a photo of an accused murderer holding a bottle of Blue printed in a newspaper or featured on a website. The error we made was assuming that the public – our consumers– would react the same way we did. Labatt wanted to separate our brand from this crime, when in fact there was no connection at all. No one but us even gave it a thought.
But at the time, we just wanted that photo out of circulation. There were a lot of alternative photos of the suspect and in our e-mail we asked that the Gazette consider using another. We should have left it there, but unfortunately we lapsed into “legalese” with an approach commonly used to underscore the seriousness of a request. Instead, our request became a news story, broken by The Globe and Mail, which obtained a copy of our letter. In hindsight, it’s understandable that the news media viewed our request the way they did. We should have known better.
Our response also ran counter to our values. Labatt has been in business since 1847, 20 years before Canada became a country, and we have experienced all the ups and downs that a company can. And every step of the way, we’ve had media coverage; this was not new to us. We have not always liked the coverage we received, but we have always understood the value of a free and unbiased press. To even appear to ask the media to censor itself for our business purposes runs completely against what we believe as good Canadian corporate citizens and was not our intention.
We also didn’t expect our correspondence with the Gazette to become public. Our efforts to protect our brand from being shown in a negative light to our consumers ended up doing just that. With social media, the speed and severity in which bad news travels has grown exponentially. The reaction from the public was swift and severe: Much of the criticism was aimed at us and the perception that we were trying to stifle the media. Not true, but fair enough. It also unleashed a number of distasteful comments that were offensive to many people, most particularly the victim, his family and friends. We didn’t anticipate this, and when they surfaced, I apologized immediately on behalf of Labatt for this unfortunate outcome. We’re professionals and we should have known better.
So why is this a best management moment for me? Simply put, because it taught me to have more faith in the public, our consumers and our brand. A lesson in humility is a lesson worth learning, but hopefully only once. It made me recognize that all the work we do in the community matters, that the connection between an iconic brand like Labatt Blue and its fans is strong. And it taught me that even in the age of social media, stepping back to look at the forest, not just the trees, is never a bad idea.
Charlie Angelakos (@c_angelakos) is vice-president of corporate affairs for Labatt Breweries of Canada.