PR experts assess Saputo’s response to B.C. cow abuse crisis

Last week, Mercy for Animals released a disturbing video showing workers allegedly from Chilliwack Cattle Sales, a dairy farm in B.C., viciously beating cows.

The dairy farm is the main supplier for Dairyland, which is owned by Montreal-based Saputo.

In a written statement Saputo said: “We do not condone any form of animal cruelty and we expect milk producers to adopt proper animal care methods at all times.”

The company also underlined the fact that it can’t select the farms from which milk is sourced, as dairy processors, under provincial legislation, are required to purchase their milk through the BC Milk Marketing Board. (See full statement at the bottom of this story.) A week later, Saputo said it is no longer accepting milk from Chilliwack Cattle Sales.

With the ongoing media storm, Marketing asked two leading PR professionals to weigh in on Saputo’s response and offer some PR advice.

Geoffrey Rowan, partner, managing director, Ketchum Public Relations Canada

Geoffrey Rowan

Fail and fail. One for Saputo, and one for the B.C. Dairy Association that Saputo tried to hide behind. But Saputo may survive largely unscathed unless boycott proponents succeed in connecting the Saputo name to the brands it sells. If that happens, Ketchum research suggests this reputational failure could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

The problem is that Saputo’s response amounts to a shrug of the shoulders: “We do not condone any form of animal cruelty and we expect milk producers to adopt proper animal care methods at all times.”

In other words: “Too bad, so sad. What can we do?” Shoulder shrug.

Saputo later told its business partners it backs the BC SPCA’s recommendation that the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattles be adopted into B.C. law. Better, but still too passive to displace the first impression that it’s ducking the issue.

Much more effective would have been an immediate statement of its intent to do something, other than try to duck the blame. People will get over their initial shock if they believe the company’s leadership is sufficiently horrified and is going to do something to address the issue. It doesn’t have to have a fully baked plan on day one of the crisis, but it has to be fully committed to change, and it must describe in some detail how it is going to figure out and implement that change.

Instead, the company hid behind its industry association, which offered the weakest of cover. It blamed the messenger. The B.C. Dairy Association blamed the media and the whistleblower for putting horrific animal cruelty in “the worst possible light.”

Really? So, there’s a good light you can put horrific animal cruelty in? Maybe something like: “Look at those three cows over there. Nobody beat them with chains in this clip. You’re only focusing on the animals that were tortured. What about telling the story of the ones that aren’t tortured? Stupid media.”

Still, Saputo is isolated from reputational damage because many of its products carry other brand names. La Sauvagine cheese, which we consume by the wheel in my household, is a Saputo product. I didn’t know that before and I won’t be buying any more until I hear a better response from the company.

If boycott proponents succeed in making those connections more broadly, Saputo could be in trouble. Ketchum’s recently issued 2014 Leadership Communication Monitor, which includes Canadian data, shows that more than one-quarter of Canadians have stopped or reduced buying from companies in the past year because of its leadership’s behaviour. A one-quarter reduction in Saputo sales amounts to about a $2.4 billion.

In the same survey, almost 60% of Canadians said the most important thing they want to see from a company in crisis is “a clear and timely action plan to rectify the situation.”

“Shrugging of shoulders” appeared nowhere on the list of desired responses in any country for any industry.

David Gordon, managing partner, Cohn & Wolfe

David Gordon

A week after calls began for a boycott of Saputo on Twitter and other social media channels (including the launch of a social media petition which has close to 100,000 signatures to date) in response to the exposure of animal cruelty on a British Columbia dairy farm, Saputo is nowhere to be found in the social media world where the outrage rages most fiercely.

They have not tweeted, or posted anything in response—relying instead on the distribution of media statements through third parties to tell their story. While this strategy may have been successful once upon a time, a different philosophy is required in managing issues in the social media age—one that is more pro-active and aggressive. Saputo needs to stand up on its own social media soapbox and share the facts, actively refuting the many ill-informed opinions currently circulating. This should be supported by posting their statements on their website (nothing there currently) and ensuring that their actions and statements are readily seen.

Saputo is clearly running into one of the key challenges of corporate social responsibility facing large companies in a social media world—the bigger the company, the greater the expectations for addressing societal problems. While it may be possible that Saputo is unaware of the rising commentary on social media, failure to recognize the importance of social media as a bellwether of societal change can have significant implications. Through social media, expectations and demands of corporation’s contributions to improving society have expanded exponentially, developing quickly and becoming increasingly louder and more significant to ongoing business operations.

As Canada’s largest dairy product producer and buyer of milk, the fact that Saputo does not own the farm identified or buy processed milk directly from it are of secondary importance as society looks for corporations to assume responsibility. The facts are often irrelevant as the mob mentality of social media encourages quick expressions of outrage and finger pointing, in this instance fueled by the genuine horror over the evidence of cruelty.

In the face of this reality, Saputo’s reaction to the animal cruelty is clear—they have shared their horror and called for strict reforms—however, they can be faulted for failing to speak loudly enough (even shouting) to be heard by the social media masses.

It is not a matter of acting, but rather of ensuring you are seen as you act.

Saputo’s statement:

As a company committed to the highest standards and ethics, we are horrified by the abuse of dairy cows in BC, which offends the values of our customers and employees alike. We want to update you on what we’re doing about it.

As Canada’s largest dairy processor, we will not tolerate animal abuse. We commend the termination of the perpetrators who are responsible for the incident at the Chilliwack Cattle Company. We want to see strict reforms to stop this from happening again.

We have asked the BC Milk Marketing Board (BCMMB) and other BC authorities to put enforceable standards in place to ensure such incidents do not occur in the future. We support the BC SPCA’s recommendation that the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattles, published in 2009, be adopted into BC law. We ask the BCMMB and other BC authorities to likewise support the BC SPCA’s recommendation.

Saputo does not own or oversee any dairy farms in BC or elsewhere in Canada. Along with all other Dairy processors in BC we purchase milk solely from the BCMMB, which is responsible for the pooling of milk from farms throughout BC. But we care deeply about the way the milk we sell is produced—and recognize our responsibility to be a leader in helping to bring about change.

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