And you may make a decision someday that will put your brand in the cross-hairs of an unknown enemy: the social sphere. You don’t think that will ever happen to you when you’re so proud of a decision, yet your brand may be next.
That’s the reality of today’s world of communication. You just don’t know.
In the past few years, I have personally experienced this in projects I’ve managed. Fortunately, none have blown up as quickly and widely as this one has for earls.
And there is no template for how to do it better, yet.
earls did it right according to how today’s public relations, corporate leaders, and community leaders are taught and generally practice without issue.
They wanted to make a change they felt was fitting for their brand. After all, they have boasted “friendly” menu items for years, and have been expanding them constantly. This simply follows in previous steps they have made that have been welcomed by customers, as they can likely demonstrate with an improved bottom line.
A nearby example, Costco was recently celebrated for stating it would not be supporting the genetically-modified salmon for it’s US stores despite a recent FDA approval for the producer – thus not supporting a US producer.
And let’s face it, with imports greatly beating exports in Canada, reaching a $1.9 billion trade deficit in February – earls is the symptom of a large failure to innovate and market over the past decade. The proof is in a nasty trend where an all time high of $8.5 CAD billion was hit in January of 2001, and the decline began in mid-2010 to eventually hit a record low of -$3.7 CAD billion in March 2015.
Yes, that’s a $12.2 billion drop!
It’s equal to every Canadian spending $348 more on non-Canadian products than on Canadian ones … every month.
In short, there’s a simple template for issues management:
Knowledge, Action, Empathy
- Knowledge explains what they know, why they know it, and if there is anything else you should know.
- Action is what their decision is, why it is that way, and who’s involved.
- Empathy expresses understanding of how it may impact others.
earls did all of these through the site they launched when they announced their decision to move to Certified Humane® beef. The site had a load of information, videos from the CEO, producers and documentaries. It included a Q&A section explaining many aspects of their lengthy thought process, challenges, and reasons why.
It didn’t matter.
Everyone had an immediate opinion without basing any of their statements on fact. Welcome to our world today.
- What you see is a series of opinions that are interconnected to weave a story that nobody controls.
- It doesn’t matter who started it, and it won’t matter who ends it. The story broke the internet five days ago, and it barely exists today.
Welcome to the new news cycle. What you just read about earls in the past week was not news. News journalism, done properly (rare today due to extreme cutbacks) presents both sides of a story, with factual accounts that are verified to back up the sources.
That didn’t happen. And that’s the new norm for your business – whether you are on social media or not. Do not think for a moment you are immune to it.
Where did earls go wrong?
- Did they do focus groups or surveys to test their strategy and tactics?
- Did they consider the growing Alberta-based movement to have Alberta-produced oil used in Canadian facilities?
- Did they consider the recent decision by Loblaws to not sell French’s Canadian-made ketchup, which was ultimately reversed.
- Was the reality that keyboard activists in Alberta – home to Canada’s largest beef market – have more time on their hands due to the recession in the province?
- Did they consider the Alberta economy which is strained, and thus the people of Alberta are stressed?
- Did they consider that the protectionism shown by US presidential candidates Sanders and Trump could be rubbing off through coverage Canadians see in the USA or Canada?
- Did they look at other certified methods that may closely resemble Certified Humane®?
There are many more questions that they have answered, such as:
- They have been working on this change for over two years!
- The change meant switching to a Kansas-based producer (no mention of their previous producer.)
- That they wanted to have beef that was free of many concerns that customers in North America have pushed other companies such as Costco to provide better alternatives.
- That they would consider a Canadian beef producer that met the standard they had decided upon, if a Canadian supplier was to become available.
- That they were excited and proud of the change.
- And as of today, they stand behind their decision despite the backlash.
What can you do?
Have a professional communicator as a trusted advisor on your executive team. They must be a graduate of public relations or communications, have over five years experience in issues management, and in cases like this, must have an APR or Masters in Communications/Public Relations and be a member of CPRS or IABC.
Trusted advisor – This means when they talk, you listen…and don’t discount what they say. Experienced communicators won’t feed you BS. They’ll feed you what they’ve learned through real experience, tough education, watching current affairs, learning from others through professional development, and are not afraid to be honest (or as I say – hard truths). They don’t want the scar of your stupid decision on their resume.
A graduate – Using someone with no communications degree/diploma is a very bad idea. They must be a graduate of a reputable program. Among today’s graduates there is also the PRK exam which graduates can take, although this was only introduced in January 2013 and is not widely used by graduates, yet. Do not hire someone who has taken a course on communications – that is not good enough – that is the equivalent of one course in one semester. It takes at least a full year of intensive training to develop a public relations practitioner. They almost always have previously completed a degree or diploma in a related field. Do not use a marketing graduate or a human resources person to handle communications – most aren’t interested in the job, and if they are, they’ll suck at it. A mass communicator is not a human resources advisor, and a marketing grad will struggle in crisis.
Experience – If you have an issue which could blow up, or you want to blow it up, you need someone who knows strategy and tactics. Tactics are learned and practiced in the early years working public relations. Strategy is also learned, however, a practitioner will generally not get consistent experience practicing strategy until five years and onward. This is because they need to earn their stripes, and there are less jobs in strategy which are generally at management levels, therefore, unreachable for a junior communicator.
As well, make sure the communicator hasn’t worked in the same sector or employer most of their career. We’re better if we’re passed around – as dirty as that may sound. When you move from one sector or employer to another, it changes your lens, and adds to your experience. It’s not unusual for a communicator with 10 years experience to have worked in five sectors and 10 positions. (At 18 years into the business I have worked in nine positions and dozens of sectors).
Issues management is also a segment of public relations. It’s specific, and not every public relations graduate will get the opportunity to work in issues management in their career. To complicate it further, some public relations people don’t work in social media. If they don’t – do not hire them!
If the issues manager is a former journalist, their time as a journalist does not count toward the first five years – despite their smooth talking. (Sorry hacks to flacks.)
APR or Masters – If you are looking for a senior communications professional, they need a designation behind their name. APR is Accredited in Public Relations – it’s what I have – and it comes after a minimum of five years practicing (generally, most don’t enter until they have closer to 10 years under their belt), a rigorous application and evaluation, an oral and written exam, and a measurement by dozens of their peers who already have an APR. A Masters can be taken at the start or middle of a career. Ideally, if someone has a Masters, they also have five years experience as well. Masters grads go through a load of extra education – so trust that they’ve seen lots to inform their decisions, much like an APR.
CPRS/IABC membership – Support this. Pay for their memberships. Pay for them to attend professional development sessions and conferences.
The CPRS is the Canadian Public Relations Society and is part of a Global Alliance for PR and Communication Management (160,000 worldwide members). CPRS also issues the aforementioned APR designation.
The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a competing society to CPRS and has 4,500 members in Canada. They don’t currently offer a designation for members.
Pay – You’ll need to pay a communication person. (No, we oddly don’t like working for free, even though most of us start our first gig that way.) A junior starts at too low of a wage to survive, so they’ll be clearing tables on the side. A senior communicator is upwards of $100k a year. They’re worth their weight in gold if they are a good fit for your organization. They also rank in the top 10 for most stressful jobs, so when they want time off – give it to them. (They share the top 10 with firefighters, military, and air traffic controllers.)
Fit – Not every communicator will be a fit. We all talk a lot, get used to it. We do all have different personalities, education and experience. Some will fit for your organization perfectly, and others will destroy it. Find one that matches your values.
Respect culture and community – Culture can have many meanings. I prefer to use community. Communities can be within cultures, across them, or not have any culture replacing it with community. They can be groups we are part of, were part of, or communities we have lived in. Respect them, know them, and seek to understand them and their thoughts. Talk to them and listen to them. Do not try and change them unless you’re prepared to work for three generations.
Timing is important – I’ve had big announcements ready to go and pulled the plug last minute due to another issue that could develop and impact our announcement. Sometimes, I’ve waited months to setup the announcement again.
Current affairs – Keep an eye on the news, trends, statistics, events, announcements, and even moon cycles. A good issues manager is one who wakes up on their mobile and goes to sleep with one. It’s sad, yet true – my wife hates my device.
Measure – You need to know what to measure and why to measure it. Spending money on surveys and focus groups pays off. It results in less issues as people will tell you about things you never thought about – despite years of time invested. You need to pre-measure to have a baseline, and post-measure to see results.
Statistics – They tell you about your communities. Who they are, what makes them tick, and what issues may impact them. Know them and know them well. Never stop adding to your stats.
Plan – I don’t doubt earls planned this launch, it’s obvious they did. You need to have an detailed communications plan that outlines everything, including warning signs to watch for if things get off the rails and what your plan for getting things back on track. And today, you may need your plan reviewed by other communicators outside your organization. I see the need to start a support group for this!
I’m sure there is much more, and I’d invite my PR colleagues across the country to add their thoughts below.
Either way, there are lessons to be learned with every crisis. And for earls – they’ll be wondering why they were the target of so much displeasure for years.
And as I develop my theory on today’s communications further, all I have to tell you right now is this symbol: