Submitted by Bob Burton on
An extract from Bob Burton's Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry.
Brian Page, a 42-year-old railway worker, had been busy before Easter 1992 buying furniture for a house he had just moved into at Mt Pritchard, a south-western Sydney suburb. On their way home, his daughter Melissa wanted to stop at McDonald's in Fairfield for lunch. Shortly after returning home, Brian Page began vomiting and had diarrhoea. As Page's symptoms were initially indistinguishable from a bout of the flu, his doctor gave him a medical certificate and sent him home. Page took to bed for the next three days but on the fourth day went back to work, even though he wasn't feeling well. His boss noticed that Page was unable to write properly and seemed disoriented and confused by his work. He was so concerned about Page that he called a taxi and sent him home, but by then Page recognised something was seriously wrong and went straight to Liverpool Hospital. What was unknown to Page and his doctor was that he had been exposed to Legionella bacteria. If detected early, Legionnaires disease can be treated with antibiotics. Untreated, it can be a killer. Two days after being admitted to the intensive care unit of Liverpool Hospital, Page died. On what would have been his 43rd birthday, more than 100 family and friends attended his funeral.14
Avoiding "Direct Blame"
Brian Page wasn't the only one who reported to hospital with these symptoms. In a short period, 22 people reported to hospitals at Fairfield, Liverpool, Camden, Bankstown and Lidcombe in south-western Sydney. Six, including Brian Page, died. Most Legionella outbreaks originate from poorly maintained water-cooled air-conditioning systems, which are meant to be inspected monthly, tested for concentrations of the Legionella and the small reservoir of biocide used to kill bacteria topped up. Identifying the origin of an outbreak of Legionnaires disease is no easy task as the disease has an incubation period of up to two weeks. Health Department investigators had to collate a list of all possible cases from hospital records and then identify the overlapping paths of those affected. Eventually they narrowed down the origin of the outbreak to a block in the central shopping strip in Fairfield. Within the suspected area sat an unremarkable McDonald's outlet.
In mid-July, McDonald's Engineering Development Manager, Peter Meadows, sent a reassuring memo to all the McDonald's outlets that had water-cooled air-conditioning systems:
Fortunately for us the restaurant had in place a maintenance system on its cooling tower which was in excess of the Australian standard. Fortunately for us our tower was not the source of the outbreak. Heaven only knows what the result would have been had the store not had good housekeeping practices in place.15
According to an internal document from McDonald's RR company, Professional Public Relations (PPR), the following month McDonald's got a tip-off from someone in the Fairfield City Council, stating that it had been specifically named in the Health Department's draft report on the outbreak. With the benefit of advance notice, the company scrambled its crisis management team, comprising senior executives, PPR staff including its founder Peter Lazar, its advertising agency and company lawyers. It is rare for crisis managers to publicly talk about their campaigns, but a few years later Lazar appeared in a food poisoning scare 'hypothetical' at a Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) conference. Lazar, representing a hypothetical food company, stated that:
getting community sympathy for the possibility of the company as a victim is much better said by a third party ... it would be better for the Health Department or the Minister or the Police Department to suggest that this is a situation where the company might be a victim.16
McDonald's Fairfield crisis management team feared that in the worst-case scenario they would be specifically blamed for four of the six deaths, which could trigger lawsuits, "falling national sales and a long term lack of confidence in the company and its products."17 The aim of the crisis plan, PPR noted, was to "control damage to McDonald's reputation, avoid direct blame for the cause of the epidemic, to position McDonald's as concerned for the health of its customers and staff, to allay public concern and remove the issue from public focus." Consistent with the desire to be positioned as the victim and not the culprit, McDonald's team developed a strategy, including testing "the concept of 'being downwind of the source'." The team identified some of their primary objectives as being to "present the truth -- while under no circumstances accepting liability ... avoid blame for the epidemic." The team were also nervous about how the media would cover the department's report. To minimise surprise, PPR noted, "indirectly, these journalists were approached and the issue, including their key leads were discussed." How this was done was not revealed.
Anticipating that pressure from the victims' families may force the Health Department to make the report public, McDonald's team identified influencing the report's content as a key strategic goal. Subsequently, McDonald's Managing Director, Peter Ritchie, was informed by the department that the minister wanted the report to be made public. McDonald's crisis team, PPR later wrote, worked with the department to "approve wording pertaining to McDonald's in the official report." (The extent of the changes is unclear, but they claim that they were provided with an advance copy of the report "for review" and that they "influenced" the final wording.) Given the prospect that McDonald's would be adversely mentioned in the report, the crisis team decided their one hope would be to "deflect media interest by timing public announcements with other major news events." PPR claim that "negotiation between McDonald's executives" and Health Department officers "resulted in the report being made public on the same day as the NSW State Budget was to be released." The Health Department provided McDonald's with a copy of its media release ahead of the media conference, and PPR claimed that they organised an "on side" journalist to introduce a McDonald's-friendly question at the Health Minister's media conference.
In a media statement issued on the same day, McDonald's announced that it would "put safety first for its customers and staff" and turn off all 19 water-cooled systems at its operations around the country. However, it refused to release information about the location of the 18 other systems in order to "forestall a crisis of confidence" from customers. That night, McDonald's placed a newspaper advertisement in all national and metropolitan dailies, announcing its policy on the removal of water-cooled air-conditioning towers.18 The big test, though, would be the potential impact on sales.
Morning radio commentators, PPR later gleefully reported, urged people to "go out a buy a big Mac." The crisis team were pleased to note that many did and that for the next four days there was a significant boost in sales, with the only dip in sales being at the Fairfield outlet. At the suggestion of their advertising agency, McDonald's also switched the mix of their television advertisements away from product-specific promotion to those extolling the company's philanthropic works. As Lazar explained a few years later, this was so that if McDonald's role was blown out of proportion people are reminded that you are putting a lot of money into tenants, the eisteddfod and Ronald McDonald House. It is a very good ploy ... it worked its socks off.19
The Paper Trail
Not surprisingly, PPR and McDonald's turned down requests from journalists to explain how they handled the crisis. PPR thought it sufficiently safe, however, to submit their campaign to be considered for a PRIA's Golden Target Award for crisis management. PRIA, which claims to be the guardian of ethics in the PR industry, were sufficiently impressed with PPR's handiwork to give it a commendation. Senior Vice-President of McDonald's Communications in the United States, Dick Starmann, wrote a personal letter to Peter Lazar, complimenting him on his assistance:
I think it is safe to say that "the mission" was a success from everyone's standpoint ... I'd like to buy you a beer and chat a little bit about some of my observations from the "legionnaire's week that was".
Not everyone was a winner, though.
While McDonald's banked their proceeds from their sales boost, the victims and their families struggled with their loss. Several launched legal actions, which eventually turned up documents revealing McDonald's had covered up the extent of the problem with the cooling towers at Fairfield. The maintenance schedule prior to the outbreak contained alarming details. "Tower was sprayed with hose only due to deteriating [sic] condition of tower basin ... Tower is badly corroded", one report stated. One month before the outbreak of the deadly disease, another noted that "both dosing pumps turned off." Another, from a week before the outbreak, was equally disturbing: "Inhibitor level is low due to water losses from cooling tower ... Refilled dosing tanks with inhibitor/biocide ... inhibitor empty, biocide empty." Despite having previously claimed that it exceeded the Australian standard, another record noted that, after an inspection with a Fairfield Council officer, it was decided that the tower needed further cleaning and that "monthly Legionella testing be instituted to ensure the cleanliness of the tower."20 [emphasis added]
When Channel Nine's A Current Affair (ACA) ran a story in 2001 about the ongoing legal actions by victims of the Legionella outbreak, McDonald's refused to be interviewed.21 Instead, they insisted that ACA screen an earnest pre-prepared video news release featuring McDonald's Chief Executive Guy Russo. For more than a minute Russo had a free run to spin McDonald's side of the story:
Any suggestion that McDonald's tried to diminish its responsibility at the time or since is wrong. On the contrary we have made all the facts available to the Health Department and the public in what was a highly emotional and complex situation.22
The main concession he did make was that settling the legal claims for compensation had taken too long. But it was cold comfort for Melissa Page and her two sisters who, after years of trying to resolve a compensation claim, gave up in frustration and accepted an offer they weren't satisfied with. Melissa Page told ACA:
Someone should have been held accountable, someone should have been charged. He [Brian Page] didn't see us walk down the aisle, he hasn't seen his grandchildren, he didn't look at me and say your ... daughter is beautiful. I missed all of that.
This is an abridged extract from Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry by Bob Burton, published by Allen & Unwin (Australia), A$24.95, ISBN 9781741752175 which is available from booksellers, as an ebook for US$17.45, or from Allen & Unwin. Inside Spin will be available in the US in April 2008. Footnotes cited in the text feature the original numbering from the book and can be viewed here.
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