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The responses to the the current salmonella outbreak offer a good lesson in crisis management.  King Nut Company, the distributor of the peanut butter linked to the outbreak in at least one state, on Saturday issued a press release explaining its voluntary recall of the peanut butter it has distributed.  The manufacturer, Peanut Company of America, issued a release on the same day.

Both of the press releases, undoubtedly approved (if not written) by lawyers concerned about litigation, used the traditional "we're investigating and cooperating" formula.  King Nut, however, went a step farther in expressing concern about the people suffering from salmonella.  Peanut Company was content to simply raise questions about the link between the outbreak and its product.  Its press release sounds exactly like what a lawyer would write in a court motion.

Yesterday, . . .

King Nut issued a release stating that it distributes peanut butter in only seven states, and noted that all inquiries about nationwide distribution should be directed to the manufacturer.  In a nice example of throwing the manufacturer to the wolves while stating the absolute truth, the press release concluded, "We are doing everything we can to get our King Nut peanut butter out of distribution because our first priority is the health and safety of those who use our products. But we can only recall the product that was distributed under our label, and clearly that does not extend nationwide."

The manufacturer's response?  As of today, nothing.  No expression of concern about salmonella victims, no action it plans to take to safeguard consumers, nothing to temper its previous lawyerly (and therefore cold-blooded) analysis of the investigation.

A single day is a lifetime in the life of a nationwide crisis.  When everyone from the CDC to the distributor is focusing on your business, you need to respond, and you need to respond quickly.  As I have said often in seminars on this topic, do not let lawyers run your business.  Do not let our caution about liability drive your business judgment.  We may know how to defend a lawsuit, but we know very little about how to keep a crisis from destroying your company's reputation. 

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