Meat and poultry companies never want a foreign material contamination incident to occur, but if one does, the companies need to be prepared to address journalists and social media users.
Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for the North American Meat Institute, shared how to better handle the public relations challenges when such a contamination event does happen on January 29, 2018, at the International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE) in Atlanta.
Janet Riley, NAMI
Have a strong public image
Riley encourages meat processors to have a crisis management team in place before one is needed, and if a company did not already have one, to develop one immediately. These can include top management officials, operations leaders and even technical staff. Outside experts can also be used. In some cases, an outside public relations firm would be helpful, but Riley said that it is best that the meat and poultry processor and public relations firm have a prior working relationship before a contamination event occurs.
Crisis management team members need to know in advance who would be the spokesperson, and what types of training would be advantageous.
Riley recommends that processors have “allies” in place. It is good to have good relations with elected officials such as mayors, senators and representatives. Community business organizations like chambers of commerce are also good groups with which to have strong relations.
When the incident occurs
Most news stories have two cycles. In the case of a food contamination incident, the first cycle, according to Riley, occurs during the first 24 hours after the news broke. During that time frame, she said, the story is just the facts.
But in the second 24-hour period, the focus tends to switch to what the company is doing to address the situation, what impact it has had on customers, and have the products in question been removed from the marketplace.
How the company reacts does much to shape the story of a foreign material contamination incident. It is imperative to be transparent.
“It’s not an option to be silent. Your initial response is going to set the tone,” Riley said.
But use caution when dealing with the media, she said. It is best to admit and take responsibility for the event, but people should make sure they have the facts before answering questions. If you don’t know the answer, let the reporters know you intend to find out what the answer is, and ask them by what time they would need that information, Riley advised. If you commit to providing a reply by a certain time, do what you say you will do.
Under no circumstance should meat and poultry companies try to shift the blame, say ‘it’s none of your business,’ or respond by saying “no comment.”