In 2008, Maple Leaf Foods of Toronto had a disaster on its hands after an outbreak of the listeria bacteria in some of its packaged meat products.
Lunchmeat manufactured and packaged in Toronto under the Burns and Maple Leaf brands was infected, and there were nine confirmed and 11 suspected deaths attributed to eating the tainted meat. Others who ate the meat but recovered are still putting their lives back together, as are friends and families of all those affected.
But what is a company to do if illness or death is clearly caused by consumers eating or using your products? Do you deny everything and let the lawyers fight it out in court for a decade, hoping that the survivors will run out of gas and money? Do you spin, weave, dodge or bob around the issue and use every procedural roadblock under the sun to avoid legal liability in hopes of saving the brand's reputation?
Do you blame the victims, the doctors, or the inspection agency charged with ensuring the safety of your product?
Maple Leaf Foods chose not to listen to its lawyers. It may have saved the company.
Here's what it did:
First, it admitted it was the company's fault. It admitted it was responsible. It said, in essence, "it's our fault and we're going to fix it."
Second, Maple Leaf apologized. It wasn't "wordsmithed" or spin-doctored to deny culpability. The company didn't dodge the issue. It apologized up front in every possible media.
Third, it didn't hire a celebrity to deliver the apology, or a blonde actress with very white teeth wearing a lab coat. CEO Michael McCain was the voice and the face of the crisis, and of the apology.
Fourth, once Maple Leaf realized the problem was the company's fault, it acted decisively, and transparently. It recalled more than 200 packaged meat brands (amounting to tens of thousands of individual packages) that were manufactured or packaged at the affected plant.
Which brings me to one of the best quotes about using (or not using) lawyers. CEO Michael McCain said in his apology on TV and on YouTube: "Going through the crisis there are two advisers 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 our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food. This is a terrible tragedy. To those people who have become ill, and to the families who have lost loved ones, I want to express my deepest and most sincere sympathies. Words cannot begin to express our sadness for your pain."
One year after the tragedy, Maple Leaf Foods Inc. took out full-page ads in The Globe and Mail, the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun and other Canadian newspapers to mark the one-year anniversary of the listeria outbreak. It was framed as a letter to consumers from Mr. McCain. The ads said Maple Leaf was committed to "becoming a global leader in food safety to prevent this kind of a tragedy from ever happening again. ... On behalf of our 24,000 employees, we promise to never forget."
In dealing with a crisis by taking responsibility for it, Maple Leaf Foods may well have saved its brands and saved the company's reputation. By telling consumers, "sorry, it's totally our fault and we'll fix it," despite what lawyers might have advised, there was an appreciation that someone was prepared to take responsibility for the disaster rather than weaving, dodging and bobbing to avoid legal liability.
At the end of 2008, Mr. McCain was named business newsmaker of 2008 – conducted yearly by Canadian Press – based on his handling of the crisis.
David Dunne, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, was quoted in Digital Journal in January, 2009 as saying: "A lot of what they did was technically perfect. I think they've done as much as could be done, and it's a real example to other companies that face crises. Most companies are way too slow to deal with these things and tend to hide and they're afraid of admitting responsibility and so on, so this is a real example of how to do it right."
In the same article, Peter Lapinskie of the Daily Observer in Pembroke, Ont., said: "(McCain's) candour at a time when his contemporaries would have scurried behind spin doctors and legal eagles was a refreshing way to address a potentially devastating mistake. I actually trust the man!"
And Ruth Davenport of CJNI radio in Halifax stated: "It's so rare to see a white-collar executive descend from the ivory tower, apologize and reach out to the public in such plain language. The listeria crisis was a headline story in and of itself, but McCain's sincerity in trying to reach out to the victims and consumers elevated it even further."
"We have found that in malpractice claims against lawyers," says Susan Forbes, director of insurance for the Lawyers Insurance Fund of the Law Society of British Columbia, "a sincere apology by the lawyer signals accountability and adds an element of vulnerability that can pave the way to resolution. This is the case, even when, as sometimes, it is given late in the day. It demonstrates that the lawyer understands and empathizes with the claimant, and is a simple but effective reminder of their shared humanity."
Many jurisdictions in North America have "apology acts" that attempt to encourage apologies by making them inadmissible in a civil action. British Columbia's Apology Act was the first to be enacted in Canada. It goes beyond medical lawsuits, and applies to "any matter." Like other statutes in Canada that were enacted after B.C., it allows persons and companies to apologize, and that apology may contain an admission of responsibility, without the apology being admissible as evidence in civil court to prove liability.
So maybe the best "legal solution" your lawyers and your crisis management team can advise when your company and your brand are adversely affected by your own actions or negligence, is an apology. place to start looking at the structure and elements of an apology letter is here.
A sincere apology is an important tool that should be considered in all legal disputes that could become public relations crises and, indeed, all disputes where a reputation stands to be damaged further without one. But speak to your lawyers and crisis management advisers about whether the apology is the right option, or if it will get you into further legal trouble.
It's said there are some injuries that can never be repaired just by an apology, but there are others that can only be repaired by one.
Vancouver franchise lawyer Tony Wilson's book Manage Your Online Reputation was published by Self Counsel Press in December, 2010.