Crisis planning and media management in the poultry industry

When the media asks a poultry farmer or poultry processor for an interview, it can be pretty daunting. Adverse publicity is never good, but proper poultry industry crisis planning is an opportunity to get your messages across.

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Consumers are always interested in food news, especially meat and poultry, but tend to default to negative, even when reporting is balanced.
Consumers are always interested in food news,
especially meat and poultry, but tend to default to negative, even when reporting is balanced.

When the media asks a poultry farmer or poultry processor for an interview, it can be pretty daunting. Adverse publicity is never good, but proper poultry industry crisis planning is an opportunity to get your messages across.

Consumers are always interested in food -- and particularly in the meat and poultry industry -- and being prepared is key.  After all, an inquiry is not always about crisis management; it is also your opportunity to get your messages across, and turn what could be viewed as a break situation into a make.

How to handle the media and communication was examined by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), at the International Poultry Processing Expo, held in Atlanta in January. Attendees were drawn mainly from family-run meat businesses, interested in how to develop their own response plans, should the media come knocking.

While there’s no tried and trusted formula for handling the media, delegates were told, there are several areas where solid preparation can make any exchange between producer and journalist easier, and increase the likelihood of success. Doing a little homework pays dividends for your reputation.

Changing communications

Anyone faced with handling the media needs to understand that the traditional media landscape has changed significantly. There have been significant redundancies in traditional media channels – newspapers and magazines – and an increase in employment in new media, or digital.

Television remains the most popular channel for news in the U.S., but digital, and particularly social media, is gaining ground. Traditional news vehicles are having to change the way they handle and present news to become more like digital channels, and the workload of journalists is increasing all the time.

Reporters now need to work on multiple stories in a day. If you can give them something that works well with cut and paste, it will work to your benefit.

But love it or hate it, the media works, the presenters explained, and the press, in its various forms, remains the primary source of information for most consumers.

Food is big news, ranking among the more popular issues, and more Americans get more health and nutrition information from the media than from health care professionals.

But consumers tend to default to negative, even when reporting is balanced, so what should a poultry producer do when faced with an approach?

“Before engaging, check them out. Who is the person you will be talking to? What have they covered in the past? How do you want to engage?” said Janet Riley, senior vice president, public affairs and member services at NAMI. 

When engaging with reporters, it’s worth finding out information about who they are and who they work for and how much you want to invest in terms of time and effort in your communications about your poultry business. What are the chances of success?

What will be the media outlet? Will it be local, national, or international, print, digital, television, and if the latter, will it be live or taped?

Riley continued: “If you are not experienced, and you have been invited to a tough (television) show, think hard. Maybe a media statement is enough.”

Reputation management

But it’s worth remembering, every media approach is an opportunity to get your message across, and good interviews are memorable. But what do you want the public to remember about you and your poultry business?

Good interviews are rarely spontaneous, they demand preparation and it is worth trying to get sound bites into what you say.

Riley gave the example of trying to get Canadian beef back onto the U.S. market. The phrase that was worked into interviews was: “Calling Canadian beef unsafe is like calling your twin sister ugly.”

Snappy and easy-to-quote statements work well. “My plant is like a hospital – people here have to scrub up before they go in,” for example, hits the spot, and is as applicable to a poultry processor as any other meat-producing company.

Three-point plan

Studies have shown that consumers tend to respond to three points, so working three points into your message with material to back those points up usually works well.

Messaging can be built around what you want the audience to take away, and based on what the interviewer might ask. You can answer questions and lead into your messages, or not answer the question and go straight to your message.

If the media approach is a request to go before the cameras, then an additional specific set of rules apply. Some also apply to approaches from the radio.

Keep it simple

Choice of words is highly important, and you should speak naturally and clearly. Stick to what you want to say, and beware of “ums,” “ahs,” and “you knows,” and vary the pitch and tone of your voice to add variety and emphasis and hold the audience’s attention. You should appear to be positive and maintain eye contact. Jargon should be kept to a minimum. How many consumers know what HACCP is, or the FSIS?

Structuring your sentences well can ensure that they survive intact, and that messages are communicated. What you say is almost always edited, so make sure that every word counts.

Body language is important, as people are influenced by what they see, as well as what they hear. If talking to camera, it might be worthwhile to deliberately sit on the tail of your jacket, so that it does not appear wrinkled. You should lean forward not back, and arms, if in view, should be open. If standing, placing one foot in front of the other makes it harder to sway.

Dressing for the occasion is important too, and dark solid colors work well. If you wear a suit to the processing plant, wear one for the interview, but if your role requires you wear a laboratory coat, wear that. Avoid, however, distracting jewelry or unusual hairstyles.

Be personal

“Have family photographs around. We are dehumanized by the media. There is a belief that we make poor quality meat for the consumer and keep the best for us. Family photographs, however, suggest that this is not the case,” Riley said.

Speed of reaction

It’s always worth remembering that reporters want to be first and exclusive. They want confirmation or denial, clarification, context, a quotation or an image. They can cast a wide net, and if what they want does not come from you, who will it come from?

In a crisis, a reporter may contact a company at 1:40 in response to an activist’s video, for example. By 1:45, they will want to have something posted on a website. This does not mean that you have to respond immediately, but the longer you leave it, the longer their interpretation will be reaching the public and not yours. With today’s social media, news travels fast and a long way.

But do not feel pressured; you have every right to ask for the following:

  • To know interview topics in advance
  • To know who the reporter is and any affiliation
  • To state key points
  • To be able to respond to allegations
  • To know how material will be used
  • To correct mistakes in statements
  • To have lengthy or obscure questions restated
  • To finish responses without interruption

And will any interview be for consumption in print, online or broadcast? If the latter, will it be taped or live? If live, will it be remote, at a desk, or with a solo camera? Will there be other guests, an audience?

And remember that every inquiry is an opportunity. Some reporters get things wrong, and this is a chance to educate them. Remember, they have a job to do too, and they won’t take kindly to you if you don’t know the answers, if you ramble, avoid the question, or are hostile or argumentative.

And should they ask you “Is there anything you would like to add?” This really is your opportunity to put across your side of the story, but do not let your guard down, and stick to the script.

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