Monday, February 18, 2008

PR Can Help Heal Westland/Hallmark Meat

The Westland/Hallmark Meat Company’s recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef as a result of an animal abuse scandal documented in video by the Humane Society of the United States is disturbing on many levels. The American people long ago weighed in on what they think about individuals (or companies) who torture animals. Just ask Michael Vick.

I’m going to focus on what the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company can do now to survive. This scandal has the potential to be a company killer.

-Take immediate, aggressive action. In fact, they’ve already done this. The company voluntarily suspended operations pending the outcome of a federal inquiry. Additionally, several employees directly involved in the torture of animals were fired.

-Apologize…again and again. Westland/Hallmark’s president Steve Mendell told the New York Times that he was “shocked and horrified” by the videos. That’s a start. There needs to be an apology in every interview to go along with their formal statement of remorse (http://www.westlandmeat.com/).

-Open a direct line of communication with the market. An executive blog could be an effective tactic to express remorse and solicit comments. The comments are going to be ugly. Yet, by taking the issue head-on it will demonstrate a real corporate commitment to change.

-Once changes have been implemented, communicate proactively about the new processes put in place to ensure this type of abuse will not occur again. Keep everything open and honest, and continually self-assess progress.

-Partner with third-party organizations, including the Humane Society, for independent validation. And make sure to foot the bill for the cost of implementing these programs.

While there will be those who call for a complete shut-down of Westland/Hallmark, I believe that’s an overreaction. There is no excuse for this and it’s up to the company to rapidly put in place corrective measures.

I do believe people are inherently good and this was just the appalling behavior of a few rogue employees. A public relations program designed to foster an honest dialogue with the market won’t change what happened. Yet, it will facilitate the healing process.

12 comments:

Chris Parente said...

Marc:

Good strategy. The one tweak I'd suggest is not launching the executive blog until the proactive measures are ready to be implemented. Saying sorry isn't enough -- you'd want to report what the company is doing to rectify situation.

Chris Parente

Marc Hausman said...

You raise a good point, Chris. My thought is that a blog can also serve as a forum for external audiences to express criticism and concern. Consider the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) new blog that has received numerous negative comments. DHS officials are able to respond accordingly with the goal of fostering a dialogue and more productive relationship.

Animal Rights Activist FW said...

I hope their company goes down, hard!

Anonymous said...

I do believe people are inherently good and this was just the appalling behavior of a few rogue employees.

Baloney. This is another example of corporate corner-cutting, and if the manager didn't know it was going on, it was because he didn't want to know. It's that plausible deniability thing again.

Corporations in general are all about the bottom line, profit increases and stock price hikes. If a manager doesn't produce the expected ROI by whatever means necessary, he's out of there and the company will then hire someone who will give them what they want. The manager, of course, will tend to roll that dung ball of expectations downhill to the employees. In this case, the employees are most likely just scapegoats for bad company management, although I don't believe that relieves them of personal responsibility for their actions. I just hope the people higher up get to explain themselves in front of a jury as well.

Dan Keeney, APR said...

I agree with Chris. At this point it's all about actions. More words can amplify on what is being DONE, but the walk is more important than the talk at this point. Instead of a blog, they can participate in the online conversation by having one of their leaders respond to the outrage posted by other blogs through comments.

Marc Hausman said...

@Dan -- Absolutely! It is about action and Westland/Hallmark's management has to make an effort to amend their processes.

However, I do have a differing view on whether they should launch a corporate blog.

I've always believed it is important for an organization to proactively define the conversation, rather than merely resond to criticism.

Consider the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). They launched a blog (http://www.tsa.gov/blog) knowing full well a majority of the comments would be critical. However, it gives them the ability to respond directly and demonstrate the agency's responsiveness.

Marc Hausman said...

@anonymous -- first off, leave your name. You feel strongly abou this issue, so stand by your remarks.

I respect your opinion, yet feel differently. Corporate executives have to find a balance between management and trust of the people they hire.

In this case, the process Westland/Hallmark put in place clearly broke down. That's what has to change.

I don't personally know their top management so I can't comment on their rationale. However, I am giving them the benefit of the doubt that they wouldn't condone the torture of sick animals, regardless of the profit.

Anonymous said...

@anonymous -- first off, leave your name. You feel strongly abou this issue, so stand by your remarks.

Nope. I've learned over the years that there are a lot of nutcases online and I've no desire to be stalked or harassed for my opinions. My name would mean nothing to you anyway, I'm quite the "nobody." But, if anonymous comment is unacceptable to you, then eliminate that option in your settings or moderate comments like mine out. It's your blog and you call the shots, after all.

We'll just have to agree to disagree on whether the corporate managers of Westland/Hallmark are also at fault for what happened in their plant. I believe what happened is nothing more than a symptom of the real problem - the drive to maximize profits for the company stakeholders, no matter what it takes. It's unfortunately just the way business is done these days. If you don't believe it, look into the messes that some of our cherished corporations are making overseas when they move their operations to low wage, low regulation countries. That's part of the reason they move operations overseas - they don't have to pay to clean up after themselves like they would here and not having to worry about pollution and proper disposal of toxic wastes just leaves more money to go around the next time dividends and bonuses are paid out.

Sarah Clark-Lynn said...

Marc:

I enjoyed reading your point of view and I understand that a blog allows corporations to offer rapid responses and updates that humanize the corporate voice. These postings can produce a record of factual responses (corporate blogs during a crisis should never include an opinion or try to engage people in conversation) to issues. However, I question whether starting a new blog would be viewed as a trusted, credible source of information. Unless the company has an established blog (created prior to the crisis) with a community of trust, I think most people would see it as a PR stunt.

This is why it is important for corporate communication professionals to include corporate blogs as part of their overall public relations strategy. When done correctly, a blog provides an opportunity for corporations to build a trusted community for its constituents. Then, when the unthinkable happens, the corporation can use its blog as a trusted vehicle for providing updates.

Anonymous said...

Animal cruelty at a slaughter house are you kidding me? Although those employees actions were deplorable as humans, it is ridiculous that Mr Mendell be subjected to such loose and forked tongues, death threats, and the detruction of his life's work. I have known Mr Mendell as a family friend and business partner to my father (who does not live in a billion dollar home, but is an average joe). I know the morals and standards that Steve holds himself and his family to. It is horrible (but understandable and expected) that a business owner who has invested 18 years of his life be torn down in such a way because of lazy and careless. Yes, SOMEONE knew about this. SOMEONE did not care enough to care. Yes, Steve is ultimately responsible. Yes, perhaps even stiffer reviews of his employees was called for. However, the USDA has dropped the ball... not only here but in general. To get into this would take an entire blof in itself. Steve's plant has passed inspections by the USDA and the cows shown in these videos were tested and did NOT COME BACK as being tainted. As a person, it is horrible to see this. But no one is screaming animal cruelty when they are tearing into thier USDA approved steak. He and his family are suffering more than you care to admit. It is easy to speculate on a situation that does not hit home and direclty effect you or loved ones. It is easy to condemn someone in a public forum. I know that if he had been aware of this, there would have been an immediate stop to this behavior. These actions do not merit the death threats that he, his wife, and his children have received. It is a horrible situation for all involved. Again, although he is ultimitly responsible for these actions, it is the lazy and thoughtless employees that should be prosecuted. Have you ever been to a slaughter house? That in itself is more cruel than anything you could see on that video. This man, his family, his business, and his life are ruined. He feels deeply for the actions that occured. Before you condemn the man, condemn the system. - Denise F

Marc Hausman said...

@Denise -- I don't believe I condemmed Westland/Hallmark's CEO in my post. Rather, I offered suggestions about how public relations could be used to engage key stakeholders and the community in a dialogue.

The passion in your comments illustrates the emotion attached to this unfortunate incident.

I do agree that Westland/Hallmark's management should be given an opportunity to make this right. However, as you indicated in your comments (twice) the ultimate accountability lies with the CEO.

Anonymous said...

I was not so much stating that you condemned them here. I am glad that in the face of this tragedy, which it is for ALL involved, there are those that can be objective and provide forums where discussions can be held. The condemning comment was a general comment as I have read so many comments by those who focus on the one without thinking of the other. At this point, there is no making it right. Their company has been shut down permanently and thier company bankrupted. Hundreds of families have had thier primary providers put out of work. Yes, he is ultimately responsible, it goes along with his title. I hope somewhere, somehow... those that did these horrible things will be punished, and those who have been brought down unjustly can rise from these ashes. Thank you for your objectivity.- Denise