Dole, the world’s largest producer and marketer of fresh vegetables, is hiding behind its attorneys, while a scathing report on tonight’s “Dateline” most likely will send sales of its bagged lettuce heading south.
Attorneys apparently told the company not to allow executives to be interviewed for the story on how at least 26 people in three states have gotten sick after eating Dole bagged lettuce tainted with E.coli.
After numerous interviews with victims, health officials and produce industry spokesmen, I kept waiting for somebody from Dole to come on camera.
Certainly a company honcho would apologize, show a little sympathy for the sick consumers, and talk about how Dole is cooperating to solve the problem. If they’re smart, they’ll even set up a hotline for consumer questions and tell viewers what number to call.
Instead, in a letter to “Dateline,” Dole says it is “unable to comment” because of the pending lawsuits, and adds “food safety always has and will be our top priority.” The company says it is working “closely with government…to provide the freshest, cleanest fruits and vegetables possible.”
That’s when I walked over to the fridge, removed the half-eaten bag of lettuce from the vegetable bin, and tossed it into the trash.
These clueless companies just don’t get it. When something like this happens, and lawsuits result, the very worst thing executives can do is run for cover. They make it sound like there’s a law prohibiting them from commenting if somebody files a lawsuit against them.
Well, there isn’t.
Clarence Jones, a former TV investigative reporter and crisis counseler, says too many companies like Dole make this mistake. When I interviewed him last year during a teleseminar called “In a Media Crisis, Your Lawyer Will be Wrong,” Jones said that by the time lawsuits wind their way through the legal system, a company’s reputation could be tarnished and its sales destroyed.
Jones says ninety-nine percent of the attorneys he deals with in situations like this one tell their clients not to talk. The other 1 percent understand, like Johnson & Johnson did in the 1980s during the Tylenol murders, that if you are honest and open with consumers and with the media, you can successfully defend any lawsuits and win back the public’s trust.
Johnson & Johnson followed its simple credo that guided the company through the Tylenol murders. Withinin a year, its sales surpassed where they had been when the crisis hit, all because of the company cooperated fully with investigators and the media.
The company even invited reporters into strategy sessions in which executives tried to figure out how to handle the crisis.
If it can work for aspirin, why can’t it work for lettuce?