Guest blog: What companies can learn from the Kellogg Company's crisis response

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

By Hinda Mitchell

For most businesses, how they navigate the first hours of a disaster will shape the success or failure of the overall crisis response. Recently, food company and favored national brand Kellogg's faced the unthinkable-a rogue employee released an undercover video that was more than two years old, and it featured something no food company would ever want to see: an employee urinating on cereal products going down the manufacturing line.

The company could have approached the situation in a number of ways, but they chose to do what was right, although not easy. Kellogg's took ownership and set forth with a transparent, candid response, and by doing so, they provided a strong model for other companies to emulate when faced with a crisis.

Kellogg's took the all-important first step: They responded swiftly.The video of the worker on a plant assembly line is believed to be more than two years old. It is hypothesized to be in response to what was, at the time, a union dispute between Kellogg's and its workers. Because the union issue had long-since passed, there is no doubt the surfacing of this video took Kellogg's by surprise. That being said, the company's response was swift, and it was "first to define" the nature of the crisis-an essential element of crisis response.

The company did not mince its words in responding. There was very little "lawyer-speak" and a whole lot of outrage, which connected them to the emotions the consumer was feeling.These types of videos are intended to evoke immediate, strong emotional reactions. That's why they then are certain to "go viral" and generate the most interest-and potential reputational damage-in a short amount of time.

Kellogg's North America's president, Paul Norman, responded using strong, emotional words that communicated both the company's and his personal values. Norman said he as was "outraged" and "shocked and deeply disappointed." These words resonate with the emotions of many watching the video, who would most certainly share the same opinion.

Recognizing the need to restore public confidence, the company took responsibility-apologizing to its consumers, indicating its intent to fire the worker in question if he still worked there and promising swift action, both from its own internal investigation and in cooperating with the FDA investigation.

Instead of letting social media be the tool to punish it, Kellogg's embraced an open strategy, encouraging consumers to go to its Facebook page and Twitter account for updates and to ask questions.

Because the video was two years old, there was little reason to believe the products would still be on consumers' shelves. Nonetheless, the images themselves were difficult to watch and presented what would be considered by many to be a food safety risk. Norman addressed this topic head-on, saying, "While this behavior was disgusting and criminal, this type of situation is a food quality issue and does not present a food safety risk." He then backed it up by reminding consumers of the company's commitment to producing safe, quality foods.

The situation has yet to completely unfold, and federal authorities from the FDA now are investigating further how the acts in the video might have occurred. Should Kellogg's continue its genuine, transparent crisis communications strategy throughout the process, it is likely the long-term damage to the brand or to sales will be minimal.

Hinda Mitchell is the president of Inspire PR Group, a public relations firm headquartered in Columbus. She is a recognized advisor to national corporations and organizations in crisis preparedness and management. She can be reached at (614) 537-8926 orhinda@inspireprgroup.com.