Blue Bell Tries to Scoop Out Sweet Crisis Messaging

Thom Weidlich 05.07.20


Texas ice-cream maker Blue Bell Creameries had the distinct disgrace of whipping up one of the worst crises of 2015: a listeria outbreak that left three people dead. Now the company and its ex-president have been criminally charged. For our purposes, this raises two issues: the folly of trying to conceal a crisis and the wisdom of a particular communications approach.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday, May 1, that Blue Bell, based in Brenham, northwest of Houston, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for shipping contaminated ice cream. The company agreed to pony up $19.4 million in fines and other penalties. Ex-President Paul W. Kruse was charged with seven felonies related to his alleged scheme to hide the listeria problem. He’s fighting the charges.

Back in 2015, Blue Bell was at first sprinkled with kudos for its crisis communications. That was before we learned it had had warnings that the listeria threat was spread much wider than originally thought.

The feds make that clear. Texas authorities warned Blue Bell in February 2015 that two products at its Brenham facility tested positive for listeria, according to the DOJ’s Friday statement. Instead of issuing an official recall, Blue Bell merely pulled from the shelves existing supply of the two products. It was at Kruse’s direction that this was done and that the company contended the culprit was a single machine, according to the government.

The contamination spread to other facilities. Eventually Blue Bell recalled its entire product line and closed all its factories to clean them.

Steady Stream

Its recall announcement included a video statement (below) and apology from Kruse, which came off as sincere. The company put out a steady stream of statements throughout 2015. Still, in our ranking of the best- and worst-handled crises of that year, Blue Bell earned a dishonorable mention for its original evasions.

The moral of that part of the story: Don’t try to cover up a crisis.

Now for the praiseworthy communications approach. An organization that undergoes a widespread crisis — so widespread that heads roll (Kruse stepped down as president in February 2017) — it’s a good idea to emphasize that you’re under new management and have made operational changes. It’s the “that was then, this is now” defense. Ancient history! This is especially true with prosecutions and other unpleasant probes.

In Blue Bell’s May 1 statement about the DOJ action, almost every sentence pounds this theme. The press release makes no mention of the charges against either the company or Kruse. Even the headline refers only to an “agreement” with the feds. (Okay, maybe that’s a tad evasive too.)

‘Different Blue Bell’

“Today we are a new, different and better Blue Bell,” the company writes. “Our agreement with the government involves events that took place five years ago before we shut down and revamped our production facilities and procedures. Since resuming production in the summer of 2015, we test our ice cream and deliver it to stores only after independent tests confirm it is safe.”

Even the DOJ played along. “Blue Bell has taken significant steps to enhance sanitation processes and enact a program to test products for listeria prior to shipment,” it wrote in its press release.

It’s not a bad crisis coup to get an endorsement from your prosecutors.

Photo Credit: Blue Bell Creameries via Facebook

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