3. You Can’t Win the Blame Game: Smithfield Foods
When one of the largest site-based COVID-19 outbreaks was verified at Smithfield Foods’ Sioux Falls, SD, facility, the company deflected all responsibility. The meat processor claimed to be following the lead of South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who had yet to issue a stay-at-home order and said on local television (without any evidence, btw) that “99%” of the spread of infections “wasn’t happening inside the facility…because a lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the same community, the same buildings, sometimes in the same apartments.” An unnamed Smithfield spokesperson told Buzzfeed that, “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family.” The company eventually closed the plant but left others open. That move prompted a federal lawsuit over working conditions at one of its Missouri plants. More are expected.
Take responsibility. You’d think we would have learned this by now, but apparently not. Deflecting responsibility is rarely an effective strategy for dealing with public outcry, though legal counsel frequently favors insulating the business from admitting anything. There has to be a middle ground. Action Items: Work with internal and external counsel before a crisis to discuss priorities for crisis response and establish a team approach. Work together as often as possible on non-crisis projects so you develop trust and reinforce a spirit of collaboration that will be invaluable when a true crisis emerges.
Be aware of public sentiment about current events, your company and industry. The meat-processing industry has been under scrutiny for all kinds of transgressions for centuries and faced several worker and food safety issues just last year. Inhumane treatment of immigrants and their families has dominated headlines for months, as well. Being blind to the larger environment makes it easy to deliver tone-deaf responses that often reinforce a poor image that already exists.
Action Items: Engage in trend analysis and social media monitoring as part of normal operations so you can tap into the current conversation quickly when framing a crisis response. Consider hiring an outside firm to provide reputation management services.
Play the long game. Responding to a crisis requires a mix of short- and long-term thinking. Smithfield’s problems started with its response to the public health crisis itself. The lack of a statewide stay-at-home order and social distancing requirement in South Dakota gave Smithfield legal cover for not safeguarding workers. But it was a remarkably short-sighted decision to eschew an opportunity to do it anyway. Operating at a lower volume has to be better than having to shutter the plant entirely. And the cost of paid time off or lower revenues would definitely be less than the settlements and legal costs associated with union and other lawsuits. Action Items: Make sure some members of your crisis response team are responsible for taking a longer-term view of the situation and how evaluating how responses will impact the operation after the immediate issue is addressed.
Though the brands here are all large players, crisis planning, response and management are a must-have for organizations of all sizes. That’s why we’ve been providing #PRfailure post-mortems on our website and in these monthly columns on a regular basis.
We all try our best to avoid crisis situations, but even the most vigilant organizations experience them. That’s why the best way to successfully navigate a crisis is to plan for it. Creating and testing a response plan and protocol empowers your organization to minimize impact and maintain your reputation.
Until next month. Best wishes for good health and safety to you, your family and to your staff.
We’re thinking about you.
President and CEO
The Fearey Group