On Sunday night, Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain posted a very personal four-tweet thread from the company’s official Twitter account.
He said he was “livid” about last week’s downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which killed 57 Canadians—including the wife and young son of a Maple Leaf Foods colleague. McCain made it clear he was holding U.S. President Donald Trump responsible for creating a crisis in the region after ordering the killing of an Iranian general. McCain accused the “narcissist in Washington” of devising an “ill-conceived plan to divert focus from political woes.”
I’m Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, and these are personal reflections. I am very angry, and time isn’t making me less angry. A MLF colleague of mine lost his wife and family this week to a needless, irresponsible series of events in Iran…
— Maple Leaf Foods (@MapleLeafFoods) January 13, 2020
Few would question the sincerity of McCain’s tweets, and most would surely understand his anger about the tragedy—especially as it hit so close to home for McCain.
But the tweets were also highly unusual—both for their blunt political content and emotional tone, and because they were posted to the corporate handle, raising real questions about the impact, if any, on the company itself.
The Message reached out to a handful of senior PR and advertising leaders on Monday to gauge their reaction. Fittingly, their opinions—some of which were shared on the condition they not be identified—were fairly divided.
Some saw McCain’s tweets as a great example of how brands—and brand leaders—can and should take a stand in politically volatile times. Others thought the tweets were a bad idea: attaching such strong, provocative statements to a corporate account could have a negative impact. It’s too risky for the brand and possibly the bottom line—particularly as Maple Leaf seeks to grow its business in the U.S.
Here’s a snapshot of the on the record responses we received when we asked if McCain’s tweets could be good or bad for the brand:
David Willis: “From where I stand, I think his brave, personal sharing will ultimately be positive for the brand,” said the senior vice-president of Media Profile. “This is beyond a brand taking a stand. It is far more important. It is about a brand leader actually leading, being human and not being afraid of the unknown reactions of others.
“If he wanted my advice, I’d want to talk to him about being ready for the reactions of others. I’d tell him if he felt it was right, to do it and own responsibility for dealing with those who will be upset.”
Ron Tite: In general, a corporate account should never be used for personal opinions, said the founder and CEO of Church + State, before adding an emphatic “But…”
The tweets seemed as much for his employees as the public, he said. “I’m sure the organizational benefit of the CEO taking a stand, expressing their anger, and blaming someone for their tragic loss far outweighs the risk of losing his external audience during a period of grief,” he said. “We can’t ask business leaders to have a soul and then complain when they expose it.” McCain may lose some consumers who disagree with him, but he’ll pick up others who liked the tweets, he said
Patrick Scissons: If a brand or an executive is going to take a stand, it should be related to the business or relevant to its customers, said the founder of the brand and innovation studio OstrichCo.
Patagonia sued Donald Trump about an environmental issue, but as an outdoor clothing and equipment brand, its business is closely aligned with the environment. “In the Michael McCain case, I struggle to see why he’s using the corporate brand as a soapbox for his point of view, given the nature of the issue at hand and the fact that it doesn’t have anything to do with what his company does.”
Amanda Alvaro: “When I read Michael McCain’s tweets, his pain literally jumped off the screen. It is an outrage that is shared by many about this senseless tragedy,” said Alvaro, president and co-founder of Pomp & Circumstance.
“And while it may not be ideal to use a company platform as a pulpit for personal outrage, perhaps there’s more willingness to accept it as we all grapple to come to terms with what has occurred.
“That being said, Mr. McCain has to weigh the implications to the brand, the possible backlash and potential sales risk with his desire to make a pointed political statement. The response has been mixed and that could result in longer term damage to the brand. Swaying public opinion is a tricky beast, especially on Twitter.”
Alain Giguere: “I think it’s good that CEOs and companies stand for something socially,” said Giguere, the president of Montreal market research firm Crop. “As long as it doesn’t negatively affect their business model too much.”
The difference between Canadian and U.S. reaction would be significant in this regard said Giguere, who has conducted considerable research into how the personal values of Canadians and Americans shape their consumer behaviour. Canadians share more humanistic values—they care more about others, personal well-being and creating a caring society, he said. Crop research shows Canadian support for Trump below 10%.
“In Canada, the tweets of this CEO are perfect. It’s even good from a PR point of view. He expresses our values, those of our country,” said Giguere. “In the US, it’s another thing.”
Trump still has approval ratings around 45%, and more Americans share values around competition, achievement, success and even dominance. They are more likely to believe violence is sometimes necessary. The Maple Leaf Foods tweets will not be as well received in the U.S., he said.
“How about if Maple Leaf products are now bought only by Democrat hard liners?” he said. Politics and business are not a good mix in the U.S., so any political statement needs to be carefully considered in terms of the impact on the business. “McCain’s reaction seems definitely more emotional than strategic,” he said. “But maybe in one week everybody will have forgotten about it. Maybe the U.S. media didn’t pay too much attention. We’ll see.”