Crisis Communications in Real Time – Can Blue Bell Avoid a Complete Meltdown?

Clearly, not all crisis situations are created equal.  Let’s take a look at the Blue Bell listeria contamination as an example that is somewhat unique in terms of the way the public and media have treated the matter, thus far.

For the majority of us born and raised in Texas, the Blue Bell brand is as cherished and beloved as Southwest Airlines, Mary Kay and Apple – all are brands that have achieved a cult-like following in terms of customer loyalty, brand recognition and sales growth.

In the past week alone, we have seen the Blue Bell recall elevate from what was considered an isolated incident involving a few select products to a full-blown total recall of all products in all markets.  While most brands would have already suffered greatly, even from so much as a limited recall, there was an overwhelming outcry of support from loyal Blue Bell customers who are pulling for the little creamery in Brenham, Texas, to get back to business as usual.  I actually know several people who are unwilling to give up their Blue Bell ice cream in spite of what has been proven to be a very real and serious risk of illness, or even death, from tainted products.  That’s right, there have been three confirmed deaths tied to the products, which is usually enough to turn consumers away altogether.

As professional communicators and marketers, we like to follow these situations to see how all stakeholders react.  From this perspective, the matter has now been elevated to a serious crisis.  Most companies and brands would be damaged forever.  For now, Blue Bell has shut down all of its operations and retailers have removed all products from their shelves.  In terms of crisis management, this is a critical point that will determine the company’s future.  So far, the company has been transparent, compassionate and willing to completely resolve the matter in the best interest of its publics.  It is worth noting that the total recall was a voluntary, pre-emptive measure by the company to mitigate more illnesses since the source of the contamination has now been linked to two different production facilities.  The source of the problem is still unknown.

Most of the media coverage about the situation, to date, has been about the recall and how it is impacting Blue Bell’s employees.  That is a true sign of a strong brand.  There has been no pointing of fingers, excuses or denial of responsibility from the company or its suppliers.  I am also amazed by the lack of speculation being offered by any subject matter experts that usually fuels speculation and sensationalism.

I will close with the notion that there are still chapters left to be written in this story since the source of contamination has not been announced or resolved. There are several possible outcomes based on variables that include: duration of the investigation and work stoppage, identification of the source of contamination, potential lawsuits and what the company does to re-engage with consumers once the product is back on the shelf.  As a consumer, I can attest to the fact that all of the coverage the past few weeks has only enhanced my craving (great use of B-roll).