3/3 – Did earls underestimate the beef backlash? – How not to be them

Well, obviously.

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.

See previous posts on this topic: Post 1 / Post 2

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.

Canada’s trade deficit shows a massive drop in Canadian innovation and marketing

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?

One of many memes passing around on the subject
  • 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:

Fact Check – It’s in a Brand: Alberta Beef & Certified Humane®

A follow-up to my previous post:  Canada’s innovation left for greener pastures decades ago – and earls’ restaurant must die for it, today

As the #Boycottearls movement moves forward – I’ve been watching the misinformation unfold. As nearly everyone has witnessed, social media results in issues like this taking on their own life – one that may be filled with inaccurate information.

As a modern issues manager who has worked within social media communications for over a decade (yes, longer than Facebook) I have seen this pattern repeatedly   – and  with unfortunate results for those on the receiving ends of misinformed  memes and posts by ranters, trolls and others who jump on  the driver-less bandwagon.

Below, I’ll demonstrate how misinformed some of the trending postings on the topic are.



It's a brand too
It’s a brand too

Statement: Alberta Beef is it, I’m choosing to eat Canadian beef only

FALSE:  Alberta Beef…is a brand, just like Certified Humane®. Further, it’s not always Canadian. (that was all news to me)

From the Alberta Beef web site: “We know that some of the cattle are born and raised in other provinces before coming to Alberta for feeding and processing. Some cattle are born, raised and fed in other provinces before coming to Alberta for processing. A small number of cattle may come here from northern states in the U.S. These cattle may not be completely Alberta cattle, but the beef is still Alberta Beef.”

PS. Alberta raised beef (bought at a local butcher) is the most amazing beef I’ve ever consumed. There really is no comparison. Bought elsewhere, it’s most likely the branded Alberta Beef and isn’t quite as good yet is better than what I’ve found anywhere so far.

Update 27 May 2016:  Alberta Beef Producers says Earls ‘mistake’ cooks up new opportunities


Statement: Creekstone Farms – the producer chosen by earls for Certified Humane beef is Halal certified

FALSE – I could find no information on their site about this, and subsequent searches turned up articles from within the Muslim community that Creekstone Farms was not a Halal producer (2014 online discussion).

30 April – CORRECTION –  TRUE – Thanks to earls, who posted this document, Creekstone is Halal certified. I will note that this is controversial within the Muslim community as there is debate (2014 online discussion) over the  stunning  prior to throat slitting.


I’m not even sure why this matters – in order to eat a cow, it needs to die. There are many ways to do this. I couldn’t find any Canadian-specific videos on slaughter, however, here is a video demonstrating different types of slaughter. You’ll note the throat is slit or cut in various slaughter methods. (Yes, if you want beef on your plate, the cow must die for that to happen.)

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_aL94_10YE[/embedyt]

earls facebook post terrorismTo the idiot that suggested supporting Halal turns into   rainbows/unicorns/dragons and ends with earls   supporting terrorism: That’s  the only way I’d seen a cow killed until the video above, and I’m not a terrorist and never plan on being one.  Oh, and I think I’ve met many  steers that were smarter than you. Update 30 April: Chandler resigned from a Board  due to this post.


Statement: Certified Humane is available in Alberta

TRUE – earls has stated this on their Twitter feed  in the past few days. However, they also note there is not a supplier who can meet the needs of all of their restaurants  (soon to be 65 locations). They’ve also stated they are not boycotting Canadian beef, and that if supply changes, they will revisit in the future.


Statement: I’ll be taking my business elsewhere

TRUE: You will. Sadly, you’ll be eating non-Canadian beef, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other non-Canadian products there.  Just keep that in mind. I know this as I worked many years in restaurants  years ago – and our suppliers were sometimes all non-Canadian, or partly non-Canadian.

There are also many products we as Canadians excel at producing: lobster, wheat, apples, blueberries, and beef to name a few. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be eating Canadian produced items every time you put it in your mouth – that’s very difficult to do in some regions.

Despite our need for food, it is still a product which is marketed and sold globally. In fact, some producers in Canada would prefer to sell 100% to export markets as they get a better price (ya, we suck at supporting our Canadian producers.)

I would challenge you to order a meal at restaurants only if everything is born, raised and /or produced fully in Canada. You may get hungry quickly. You’ll also realize that we Canadians excel at certain products, and don’t make others. And that’s okay. Remember, we want to export more than we import – which we don’t currently.

In some communities, we would run out of food in  3-5 days as we import most of our food. “The reality is that we have about three to five days’ worth of fruits and vegetables on our grocery store shelves in Grande Prairie,” says Foundation CEO Tracey Vavrek, in the release of the 2013 Vital Signs report for Grande Prairie.  Mrs. Vavrek continued to say  “In the event that, say, our borders were closed, the region is closed off due to a disaster, or there is a global crisis, this study has shown that with planning and some added infrastructure, we do have the ability to grow the foods to feed residents around our region a well-rounded, healthy diet.”


Statement: earls doesn’t support Canada, so I won’t support earls

FALSE: From earls site where they explain their decision (this site was prepared for the announcement, not in response to the backlash):

Is all your meat and poultry from the US?  No, we source cage-free eggs from all over Canada and the U.S., use Canadian-produced pork in all of our restaurants and use local free-run chicken, Certified Humane where possible, in all our locations.


Final remarks:

The earls issue is a good one to bring about discussion. It’s not one that deserves you joining the #BoycottEarls movement, especially if you’ve believed any of the information you’ve seen that is false, or   if you believe  the restaurant down the street is serving all-Canadian products.

It is one that makes us all rethink our food sources   in a country that survives due to exports. We must realize in order for us to be competitive in an export market , we need to be market leaders through innovation and change, or we’ll lose out to an importer who beat us to the race just as Creekstone Farms did in this case.

One headline read “Earls decision a ‘slap in the face’ for Alberta ranchers, but some experts say Canadian beef industry dropped the ball

And that says it all.

Canada’s innovation left for greener pastures decades ago – and earls’ restaurant must die for it, today

earlsearls restaurant recently made a decision, after considerable time and effort, to switch their source of beef to a Certified Humane® manufacturer.

They made the announcement on April 27 at 9:01 a.m. on Twitter, which led people to this page which explained their choice in detail, and  as they note in later videos, follows previous decisions on sustainable sources for their food.

By later in the day, the restaurant faced a growing   backlash because their source was in Kansas. It was boosted by opposition MLA’s and MP’s mostly within Alberta – home of Canada’s largest beef sector. It’s a full-on frenzy now as the online community rants and leads an effort to  #BoycottEarls which has been trending in social media for 12 hours so far.  (I’ll note that it was very sad for me to see multiple Canadian politicians shaming a successful Canadian company  when many other non-Canadian companies don’t support Canadian industry.)

earls is a  chain restaurant with roots in Montana and a head office in Vancouver. It’s also a multi-national brand – meaning it has restaurants outside of Canada, and is targeting growth in the United States right now.

This was a photo from before the dress code change at earls in March 2016

In an odd twist, earls  restaurant has been hot this past year – undergoing a re-branding, and suffering due to a CBC Marketplace report about their sexist dress code.  As noted in that story, they weren’t alone in their dress code, something anyone has experienced if they eat at any number of food/drink establishments – and many would agree that earls dress  for their staff was less revealing than many others.

Regardless, earls met the issue head-on, and made a change to their dress code, and they did it promptly. Others have been silent.  The result was earls received negative and positive coverage as the issue unfolded.

I doubt earls expected the kind of beef they are getting now. Especially when the humans working their locations in received less attention.

I understand the backlash on the beef choice – they wanted to continue down a path of sustainable food choices as they have with seafood, and add  Certified Humane® beef to their menu in all countries their restaurant is in – while Canadians think it should be Canadian-made products  on their menu. That’s admirable. 

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sf-LSf0V3h4[/embedyt]

However, I don’t think they are being treated fairly, and here’s why:

  1. If you fly almost anywhere in Canada – you’re on a plane purchased from another country.
  2. If you use a mobile device – you’ve most likely purchased a product designed and created in another country.
  3. If you buy food   in a Canadian grocery store – you’re most likely to buy a non-Canadian product many times during your visit.
  4. If you buy a new vehicle in Canada – the chances it is made in Canada are slim.
  5. If you buy a television, computer, printer, picture frame, clothing, shoes, glasses, medication, a book, a hearing aid, or a toilet seat from a store in your town  – it most likely came from outside of Canada.
  6. If you are sitting on a chair right now – that’s most likely not from Canada either.
  7. The music you listen to, the cleaning products you use, the  make-up or hair product, and yes, even the gas in your vehicle – all likely from another country outside Canada.
  8. The newspaper writing the scathing story on  earls shameful choice for beef – also not Canadian.

This list would be huge if I continued. And with it, would come questionable health & safety practices, poor wages, and corporate welfare to get it all in front of you right now. Look around the room. Most of what you are looking at was made in ______________ country…but you can only put Canada in that blank a few times.

earls logoSo, why is that earls’ fault? Why should their reputation suffer? Why should you stop eating there? Why should their market share suffer?

Where were we when all of the Canadian-made products we used to have vanished? Why weren’t we throwing manure then?

Over my lifetime (40 years) “Made in Canada” has vanished off of labels. And NOW we have a problem with one restaurant that doesn’t serve Canadian made products?

What about everything else?

Why is earls to blame for bad trade deals?  Why are they to blame because they couldn’t find a Canadian company who was  Certified Humane®?

I think Canada has become a wasteland of products from other countries. Yes, everything we consume will either be dumped in our landfills, forests, or water at some point. Walk into a department store or grocery store…any store…and look around. Everything on those shelves will end up as waste eventually, most within weeks or days of your purchase. Most was not Made in Canada.

I’m glad that Canadians are finally angry about “Made in Canada” vanishing. When “Made in Canada” went,   our innovation left with it.

I can assure you earls is not the reason for our loss of innovation. earls has even stated this:  “We needed to source a Certified Humane® producer that could meet our supply. Steaks and hamburgers are among our biggest selling items and we have always used Canadian beef in Canada.
As our commitment to Conscious Sourcing grew, we made the decision that Certified Humane beef was important to us and started sourcing in Canada. However, after months of trying, we were unable to source a federally inspected, Certified Humane producer that could consistently meet our large supply needs.”

That’s not earls problem. That’s a pure example of the death of Canadian innovation – watching as the world surpasses us to open new markets – new ways of producing a product that is wanted by consumers. It’s also very Canadian of us to shame another Canadian company for being an innovator (Look up: Avro Arrow to BlackBerry).

If we want Canadian products from Canadian companies in our communities – we need to innovate so Canadian’s can buy Canadian products.

Instead, we’ll blame a restaurant for decades of market share leaving Canada for greener pastures.

That’s bull s#$%!

Tactics Are Not Strategy

As I get more comfortable in my second stint as a marketing/communications entrepreneur I am realising that some people still don’t get it, and I gave them nine years to learn!

“I ran an advertisement and it didn’t work,” or “I used to print that and nobody wanted it,” are two common statements. While I smack my head, it is their head I should be smacking.

To me, it is fairly simple. Tactics are not strategy. That is, an advertisement – even a campaign of advertisements – is not a strategy, it is a tactic or a series of tactics. The blame does not rest with the advertisement placement, graphic designer, or advertisement media. It is often the complete lack of a strategy. The tactics just get the blame because the strategy didn’t exist or was poor.

Strategy in marketing/communications looks first at research, an analysis of the past, current and future, and the development of strategy. I often see “strategy” as a title and a list of tactics under this section – wrong!

Strategy is the big picture (0.5-10 years), or if you are dealing with me on some projects, the future picture (20-30 years out.) I’ll have your head confused on the latter.

Strategy is defined. It is focused. It’s measurable in real things (those are not “likes” however “likes” will get you there.)

So, when you are wondering why an advertisement, post, sign (my favourite) or media release didn’t work, please stop blaming those items.

A failure to plan, is a plan to failure. Focus on strategy and the tactics will come.