There are few moments in life which we have the ability to have a clear memory of the response we had to seeing and event. Whether it is the flames shooting out of the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11, or a child’s first steps, these images cause a deeply emotional connection to the human experience. Thanks to the undercover work of the nonprofit, Animal Recovery Mission, the world was able to add seeing baby calves abused to their list of visual experiences. Over a several month period, undercover animal activists recorded arguably one of the most unnerving and gruesome “behind the scenes” footage of how we get our milk. I will go as far as to say that this video is a graphic representation of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”.

My focus here is not the act in itself, but the response from the Fair Oaks Farm. Arguably the culprit that keeps most executive level leaders up at night is…… Crisis Communications.

Leaders know that they are one viral video shy of losing brand equity, customer loyalty, and positive association for their products and services. All it takes is one fistfight in a McDonalds’ lobby, or a child molester selling your foot long sandwiches to ruin decades of brand strategy, product positioning, and marketing efforts. If you are reading this far, you are probably wondering “where’s the beef” (poor attempt at humor). From watching Fair Oaks Farm’s apology, we can pick out some simple key necessities for addressing a crisis of this magnitude. Whether you condemn Fair Oaks Farms for the aforementioned transgressions, or whether you forgive them, hopefully you can appreciate the meticulously crafted communication that essentially got them out of the dog house and back into the hearts of milk consumers.

Take meaningful accountability. Dating back to our first broken vase while playing baseball in the house, many of us can relate to that moment where we have to stand by our pile of destruction, look a disappointed parent/parents in the eye and say “I did it”. A simple apology can go a long way, and it must be meaningful. Throughout his apology Mike McCloskey, owner of Fair Oaks Farms, looked like he was about to cry. Based off my emotional interpretation of his response, he seems legitimately sorry for the treatment of the animals portrayed in the video. A simple and meaningful apology goes a long way to help relieve the audience of any dissonance towards the actions of the employees. As some of you may recall the epic fail of Tony Hayward, CEO of BP stating “Nobody wants this over more than I do, I want my life back.”

Build the context and share your perspective (facts, perceptions). Fair Oaks Farms had an animal welfare training and had continuous education training to include a disclosure document as a mandatory reporter for any negligence or abuse of animals. Noone would have known that if he didn’t tell us. He built context of work that was already done and admits faults in the internal culture of the organization. That tells me, Joe Milk Consumer, that shit happens, and he can’t control everything. Mike immediately follows up with a statement on the firing of three of the individuals three months prior. WOAH WHAT!!!??? That completely throws us off of our perceptions. Didn’t this video just come out on Facebook? So this organization who had employees hurting cute and cuddly cows already fixed the problem three months ago…. BUT WAIT, THERE’s MORE!! He openly admit that one of the guilty parties is still employed at the dairy and was quickly terminated. That plays a HUGE role here. That illuminates the possibility of the shoe to drop and them having to apologize for their first apology because they did not actually fix the problem. So that’s a big win for the Fair Oaks Farms team for doing their due diligence on fact finding and disclosing their error of maintaining shady employees. 

Communicate a clear path forward. Great, we know that our milk came from abused cows, so what are you going to do about it? In order for us to move forward we need 1. An apology 2. Tell us the real story 3. Tell us what you are going to do about it. In their apology, was a clear path forward and the initial creation of a system of real checks and balances by an outside source. I didn’t jump on this story as quickly as I had hoped, having been several months ago. I can still remember what they promised to do to fix negligence and thwart any potential abuse within their company. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in that meeting room while they wrote on the board “How do we move forward from this.” In the end, the key point is to communicate where you want to end up and carefully chose each decision in order to get there. Build the vision of a clear action steps and measures in the minds of the audience so they can see in their head all of the processes and steps working together to create a friendlier and healthier environment for our beloved milk producers.

Keep your word, and share your progress. This is no time to go back on your word. Your audience may forget this over time, but why let them? You lose that capital by not responding to your intended audiences and reminding them how committed you are and what you are doing to follow up on your promises. BUILDING TRUST BUILDS BRANDS! This is no place for modesty. When you follow up on your promises, make sure you are telling someone or you will miss a big opportunity to build trust with your past, present, and future customers and brand advocates. 



And there you have it!! Four simple steps that can improve any crisis communication. Take meaningful accountability, Build the context and share perspective, communicate a clear path forward, and last but not least, don’t let your employees beat up baby cows ever again. The last piece is key as a continued communication effort should be planned to follow up on how the plan is being implemented and what are the measurable outcomes. Because after all, if you don’t actually follow up and commit to your plan, then you’ll end up in the same place you where when it all started.

Dave Wentzel

Dave Wentzel


Dave is a strategic communicator with a passion for building solid foundations for brands and helping clients tell their story. His drive is fueled by a passion to help others reach their full potential. This blog is a platform for the opportunity to express his thoughts on industry trends, communication best practices, and to help viewers see the world as he sees. If you have any ideas on topics or thoughts for Dave to improve his communications, please feel free to connect via an email, or connect with Dave on LinkedIn at the icon below.


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