An angry series of tweets from the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods Inc. about the downing of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran are uncharacteristic and risky, but unlikely to create long-term consequences for the company, experts say.
"My initial reaction was first an eyebrow raised and then a jaw dropped," said Dimitry Anastakis, a professor at The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, after he read Michael McCain's tweets.
McCain took over the Maple Leaf Foods Twitter account Sunday evening for what he called his "personal reflections" after learning a colleague had lost his wife and child when Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 was shot down shortly after takeoff from Tehran airport on Jan. 8, in what Iranian officials have described as an accident.
All 176 on board were killed, including 57 Canadians.
"I am very angry, and time isn't making me less angry," he wrote.
The Canadians on board are "collateral damage" from the behaviour of "a narcissist in Washington," he said, adding "we are mourning and I am livid."
The company declined an interview request, saying McCain "would prefer to let the messages in his tweets speak for themselves."
Anastakis said he couldn't think of a precedent for McCain's comments in Canadian corporate history, especially since they were unsolicited and delivered through the company's Twitter account rather than a personal method of communication.
McCain is widely regarded as an effective communicator, and "was always seen as a kind of case study of the greatest response to a public relations disaster" after a deadly listeria outbreak in 2008, said Anastakis.
He quickly appeared in a TV ad issuing a candid and abject apology for the outbreak. The company rapidly regained consumer trust under his leadership after the outbreak cost the company millions and sent its stock price plummeting. He was voted the business newsmaker of the year in an annual survey by The Canadian Press.
Following the downing of flight PS752, McCain "felt the tragedy warranted his response," according to an emailed statement from Maple Leaf Foods. The company did not immediately respond to follow-up questions.
McCain appears to have acted regardless of political or business risk, said Anastakis.
"There's always multiple levels of risk when a business leader kind of gets into a political debate, especially one that is so charged and controversial," he said.
In this case, the risk could mean backlash from Canadian and (more likely) American consumers, as well as possible retaliation from the U.S. government.
Maple Leaf announced in April 2019 that it is building a US$310-million plant-based protein facility in Shelbyville, Ind., with the help of government and utility incentives, to support the company's Lightlife and Field Roast brands.
The company's shareholders and employees may not be pleased either, said Anastakis.
"Your place is not necessarily to risk the firm's status, stature, potential prosperity by making these kinds of statements on ... effectively company letterhead."
Robert Carter, an industry adviser with The StratonHunter Group, doubts the company will feel much beyond a short-term blip.
Consumers who are loyal to the brand are likely to focus on the product more than his comments, he said, which are unlikely to be viewed as so detrimental that they'll prompt a widespread boycott.
On the opposite end, Carter thinks many Canadians are angry at the U.S. for escalating tensions with Iran and are shocked by the subsequent outcome.
"I think there's a lot of Canadians that will actually stand behind him and ... be proud of the fact that he took the initiative to go out and make these types of comments."
That positive bump may too be short lived, noted Anastakis, as consumers can be fickle with their national pride.
He recalls a few years prior when Canadians turned on Heinz ketchup after the company moved its manufacturing to the U.S. — an example of "how quickly that kind of economic nationalism around this can dissipate."
While the tweets are unusual for a chief executive, they're likely to be viewed as more personal than political, said Burkard Eberlein, a professor at York University's Schulich School of Business.
It doesn't include a call for action from the Canadian federal government or any indication that McCain is taking steps to lobby governments to act.
It's unlikely that Ottawa will engage with the commentary, he said, or that McCain will follow up with more on this topic.
"I wouldn't jump to the conclusion: 'Oh, here's a CEO that has decided: I want to become a politically active CEO,'" he said.
"I think he is very much driven by the sense of grief, and maybe a bit of anger and resentment — seeing it as the outcome of a chain of events that could have been prevented."
Maple Leaf Foods shares closed down 24 cents, or 0.96 per cent, at $24.84 on The Toronto Stock Exchange.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2020.
Companies in this story: (TSX:MFI)
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version stated that 63 Canadians were on board the flight.
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
…U.S. government leaders unconstrained by checks/balances, concocted an ill-conceived plan to divert focus from political woes. The world knows Iran is a dangerous state, but the world found a path to contain it; not perfect but by most accounts it was the right direction…— Maple Leaf Foods (@MapleLeafFoods) January 13, 2020
..A narcissist in Washington tears world accomplishments apart; destabilizes region. US now unwelcomed everywhere in the area including Iraq; tensions escalated to feverish pitch. Taking out despicable military leader terrorist? There are a hundred like him, standing next in line— Maple Leaf Foods (@MapleLeafFoods) January 13, 2020
…The collateral damage of this irresponsible, dangerous, ill-conceived behavior? 63 Canadians needlessly lost their lives in the crossfire, including the family of one of my MLF colleagues (his wife + 11 year old son)! We are mourning and I am livid. Michael McCain.— Maple Leaf Foods (@MapleLeafFoods) January 13, 2020
Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.
To those who have made donations, thank you.
To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.
The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.
After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.
If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.
We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.