An article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle offered textbook examples of what to do, and NOT to do, if your company gets involved in damage control. I’ve never seen a contrast so clear-cut.
Here’s the backstory: an animal welfare group named Compassion over Killing shot a video of cattle allegedly being brutally mistreated at Central Valley Meat, a slaughterhouse in California. The video was turned over the USDA who immediately sent inspectors out. Finding conditions just as bad as depicted on the video, they shut the operation down.
In-N-Out Burgers was, it turns out, a customer of Central Valley Meat, and quickly severed the relationship. Quoting from the article: “Mark Taylor, chief operating officer, said Tuesday the company acted immediately upon becoming aware of it. ‘In-N-Out Burger would never condone the inhumane treatment of animals and all of our suppliers must agree to abide by our strict standards for the humane treatment of cattle,’ Taylor said to The Associated Press in a written statement.”
Reaction was instant and decisive… absolutely no question as to where In-N-Out stands on this. They defused a nasty situation as soon as they were associated with it. That’s the good example of damage control.
But here’s the bad: instead of making themselves available to the press, the owners of the plant (who are identified by name in the article) declined to comment, explaining they had not seen the video. They then hired a PR firm, which issued the following statement: “Central Valley Meat takes these issues very seriously and is now developing a plan of action to present to (the Food Safety Inspection Service) to remedy any potential violations of USDA guidelines,” the statement said. “Based on our own investigation and 30 years of producing safe, high-quality US beef, we are confident these concerns pose no food safety issues.”
Maybe that’s true, but it’s hard to believe in the context of the USDA’s shutting them down. They first ran from the issue, then stuck their heads in the sand. And shame on the unnamed PR agency, which was apparently hired in the middle of a crisis and responded by issuing a hard-to-believe press release. You couldn’t find a worse example of crisis management.