I sincerely hope that you never need to use the information in this month’s Leadership Lesson. Unfortunately, you may well be in a position where a dairy business you are connected with is the subject of bad press from a manure spill, an animal cruelty incident, fertilizer/chemical misuse or an employee accident. What do you do if you are in a leadership position?

The initial response for most is to avoid or deny fault. The reality is that these responses are usually the wrong responses, especially from the perspective of industry image. Research about people’s perception in such situations tells us that silence from the leaders of the business involved feeds the perception that what happened is even worse than has been reported. The problem with denial is that it usually is at least partially false; history tells us that cover-ups only make matters worse.

You may well be asking: a) why is the leader response important and b) how should the leader respond? Let’s start with the first question.

Two dramatic changes over the last several decades have magnified the importance of any incident involving inappropriate actions on a dairy:

  1. As our society has become more affluent, the diversity of attributes consumers consider in their purchasing decision — for dairy products in our case —has increased. These new, more diverse attributes have included attributes not directly related to the product itself, like how the product is produced. In our dairy sector, the most controversial attribute not directly about the product is animal treatment and practices used to handle the dairy animals.    
  2. Communication is now almost instantaneous. Something bad that happens on your dairy can be communicated to other producers and consumers around the country and even around the world.Bad press can negatively impact consumer perception of those attributes not related to the product itself, thus influencing their buying decisions.

Today, an incident that reflects badly on dairy producers or dairy products has increased potential to reduce the demand for dairy products.What, then, should leaders do when such incidents occur?Before giving my answers, I must note that before doing anything you should your lawyer about any legal consequences of your statements. That said, experts who have studied these situations uniformly recommend you be proactive. The leadership of the dairy business and/or the industry needs to speak up and make three things very clear:

  1. Accept responsibility for any errors, mistakes, poor judgments, etc. that were made.
  2. Apologize for those errors, mistakes, poor judgments, etc.
  3. Explain clearly what steps will be taken ensure that whatever happened does not happen again.

Leadership lesson: After any image-damaging situation at your dairy or in your industry, leaders must step forward and accept responsibility, apologize and explain what will be done to ensure whatever happened will not happen again.

Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and Professor Emeritus at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He can be reached at rmilligan@trsmith.com or 651-647-0495.