meating newspapers, magazines, the airwaves and the Internet, one can safely assume
that every food brand logo potentially looks like a bullseye to lawmakers, regulators
or media outlets eager to make headlines.
With the deck so heavily stacked against the food industry in 2008, what can
those caught in the recall crosshairs do to avoid losing hundreds of millions of dollars in litigation, and even more in brand credibility and trust? The answer is simple:
Take a lesson from those who have been there before—for 2007 could just as easily be
have been dubbed “The Year of the Recall Response.”
Pet Food: Taking Decisive Action
The public has very little patience for companies or industries that are perceived
to have caused harm to vulnerable populations—and, other than children, there is no
more vulnerable population than pets. FDA officials have reported that the number
of inquiries they received with regard to the 2007 pet food crisis dwarfed the number
“In crisis communications, the
messenger is often
before the crisis hit and was able to —
with the help of outside crisis communications counselors—get them placed for
television and print interviews and assist
them in posting to the high-authority
blogs covering the recall. Letting third-party advocates deliver the key messages
greatly enhanced their believability and
made it that much harder for the industry’s detractors to make their case. A
Synovate E-Nation survey conducted
just weeks after the first pet food recall
led one researcher to say, “For the most
part, people feel their pets were unaffected by the recall.” Industry leaders credit
third-party advocates with much of that
more important than the
they received for any food-related recall in recent history. In cases such as these,
emotions run high and the potential for disaster increases exponentially, making an
effective communications response absolutely imperative for companies, or entire
industries, that must protect their brands and calm a nervous consumer base. What
can we learn from the pet food industry’s crisis response?
1. Think like your consumers. While every recall response is different, there is
one piece of advice that applies across the board: Think like your consumers. What
is their mindset? What do they need to hear? From whom do they need to hear it?
These factors will ultimately decide whether a company’s brand credibility and trust
are going to survive. In the pet food recalls, it wasn’t hard to approach the situation
from the consumers’ point of view. Pet-owners were worried and extremely upset.
They wanted to know that every precaution was being taken to keep their pets safe.
And, above all, they wanted to believe the person telling them that everything was
going to be okay. These early determinations guided every aspect of the recall
response and greatly contributed to the success of the measures outlined below.
2. Take action. As the old adage dictates, actions always speak louder than words.
But, in this regard, the pet food industry faced a unique challenge in that, at the outset of the campaign, there were no answers available as to the source of the pet food
adulteration. Because of the situational analysis described above, the industry knew
that fast action was necessary. So, rather than go into period of “radio darkness” until
answers could be provided, they established the National Pet Food Commission, a
group of industry, regulatory and scientific leaders charged with getting to the bottom of the crisis. This move shifted the pet food industry from a perception that
they were part of the problem, to a perception that they were part of the solution—
and it bought valuable time for the industry to identify the root cause of the crisis.
3. Let your allies speak for you. In crisis communications, the messenger is often
more important than the message itself. And because the credibility of those telling
the public that the vast majority of pet food products (99 percent by some accounts)
still on the shelves was of critical importance, the pet food industry wisely let trusted
and disinterested voices do the talking. In an example of crisis preparedness that is all
too rare today, the industry had cultivated relationships with veterinarians long
Spinach: Targeting the Media
The spinach recall of 2006-2007 was,
in many respects, a classic food recall
case. But, an examination of the recall
response that followed the E. coli
outbreak that nearly crippled the spinach
producers of California demonstrates the
power of communications tactics that are
often overlooked by those embroiled in
a recall crisis. What can we learn from
1. Control the picture of the crisis.
To quote yet another clichéd adage, a picture speaks a thousand words—but in an
age when communications battles are
fought in thirty-second TV and Internet
clips, pictures can be worth a lot more
than that. At the outset of the spinach
crisis, the only pictures of the crisis available for public consumption were of
spinach being pulled from shelves and
questionable farming and handling industry practices. Soon thereafter, however,
farmers in California opened their doors
to visual media outlets in order to show
rather than tell the public all that was
being done to safeguard spinach crops.
Pictures of modern processing facilities
that took great care in protecting crops
from contamination were beamed all
across the country and helped the public
come to the conclusion that the crisis was
temporary and not the fault of responsible spinach growers.
2. Identify which media outlets the
media is listening to. Whenever a big
story breaks, there are always particular
media outlets, depending on geography,
subject matter or other considerations,