In this age of instant information, news about restaurant fiascos and food recalls can be spread to hundreds of thousands of people in minutes, so when a food safety crisis hits, it’s essential that a company is prepared with a response and communicates with the public immediately.
After all, when news of a crisis spreads without an adequate and timely response, it can damage a successful brand’s reputation and negatively impact customer loyalty, even if the rumors are false.
Sue Reninger, client brand strategy, managing partner for RMD Advertising, Columbus, Ohio, states the strategies used in managing a food crisis cannot and should not waver as the latest buzz dictates.
“Responding to a crisis requires pre-planning, carefully crafted messaging, and a calm, cool demeanor,” she shares. “All responses within the food business are representative of the brand (and often the family that owns the food brand). Being proficient in food crisis management is a critical discipline for any food brand or agency that has a hand in the food industry.”
By fine-tuning a food crisis strategy, she adds, brands can ensure they continue to serve the organization well and protect their public profile while helping to instill trust between the brand and its consumers.
The Rise of Social Listening
Sean Smith, executive vice president and head of reputation management for Porter Novelli, Berkeley, Calif., notes that speed has always been important, but it’s even more so now, emphasizes that it’s critical to acknowledge what is going on and work to minimize the impact.
There’s no better way, he offers, than social listening, which is free and delivers extremely valuable insights direct from consumers.
“Consumers were always talking about your brand. It’s an amazing gift to be able to listen in on that conversation—and to participate in it,” he says. “Constant monitoring of social channels helps brands understand the real-time conversations that are taking place. Whether in times of a crisis, or not, it’s important for brands to be aware of consumer chatter.”
Online communities are changing the way food-related businesses research and communicate with their target audiences. Being unaware of what people are saying about a company, farm, restaurant, or other business in a crisis on social media is risky business.
Smith says there is no other method of contacting customers that combines the benefits of cost effectiveness, speed, and engagement. That’s why a growing number of companies are turning to social listening to contain a crisis, prevent the spread of misinformation, and minimize the impact to the bottom line.
Susan M. Tellem, a partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations, Inc., Malibu. Calif., leads the crisis team and the food issues group for the company. She feels when you “listen” to social media, a company can correct misinformation quickly, find out who is friend or foe, do “live” messages from the head of the company, and rapidly make changes in strategy if the current one is not working.
“Typically, recall success rates fall below 30 percent, leaving huge amounts of potentially dangerous products out and available in the marketplace,” she says. “Social media has an important role to play to make this process more efficient and improve success rates.”
Christof Bentele, global head of crisis management for Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, Novato, Calif., says clients now use social media listening platforms to pick up on issues faster than ever before to get ahead of a crisis.
“There is now so much data constantly being created about an organization that it’s now critical to incorporate technology-based solutions to ensure critical issues are flagged prior to their development into a crisis,” he says. “Social media engagement is no longer an option for a company—if it does not have a strategy, the organization will lose control over its content being shared about the business.”
Neil Steinberg, vice president, public relations and communications for Dataminr, a New York-based technology company that discovers high-impact breaking information from social media in real time, opines that brands are looking at the general conversation on social media to get a better grasp on how it’s evolving in real time, both positively and negatively.
“Additionally, they’re focusing on specific hashtags—how many people are retweeting and interacting with a specific hashtag, and how far their message or campaign is getting out there,” he says. “Supply chain, employee behaviors, and sub-standard prep conditions are among the key triggers as it relates to food safety issues. For food brands, many of these issues can be discovered through social listening.”
The ability to monitor, capture, and react to this content early allows brands to kick-start a crisis response and mitigate risk. This also allows them to determine if the issue is specific to a certain store as it relates to a national chain (e.g. the Buffalo Wild Wings chicken head issue), an employee, or something with a larger scope, such as a supplier that may trigger a regional or even a national recall.
“As it relates to food and beverage crises, social media can both discover, validate, and ultimately respond to a crisis,” Steinberg says. “While social media is often the tripwire of a crisis, embracing the medium enables brands to get in front of a situation from a public affairs and customer relations perspective before it spirals out of control.”
Additionally, from a customer perspective, customers are utilizing social media more than ever to voice their complaints and highlight issues in a public manner, which adds increasing pressure for brands to act quickly and efficiently.
A Stronger Connection
No matter the social network (Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, etc.), blog, or online forum, the social web is offering customers a more personal connection, which is why social media involvement is vital in a crisis.
“Hearing about a crisis before the issue has snowballed and developed is important because consumers can be protected and reassured that they are doing business with a firm that cares,” Bentele shares. “If managed effectively, social media channels enable a company involved in a crisis to manage the issue more closely and move an issue into an offline environment where the full facts can be identified.”
One example of where social media formed part of the process was when the Greek-style yogurt company Chobani had an issue on Aug. 26, 2013. Customers complained that products were exploding and that mold was found inside, and more than 30 social media stories were posted about the issue that day.
Chobani quietly communicated the issuance of a voluntary withdrawal to stores, instructing them to remove the affected products. It wasn’t until September 5, however, that Chobani addressed the problem head on and set up an aggressive campaign.
“A Facebook post was issued reporting that a decision had been made to remove yogurt from selected stores due to ‘isolated quality concerns.’” Bentele says. “To note, carrying out a withdrawal rather than a recall did lead to some criticism on social media channels as the company was perceived as not having taken the issue seriously enough.”
In March of 2015, the outbreak of the H5N2 avian influenza (bird flu) was the largest in U.S. history and ravaged the Midwest’s poultry population. Steinberg notes Dataminr was able to provide real-time notifications as the outbreak impacted supply, production, and sales for commercial poultry processing and biotech companies. These notifications kept things from escalating due to false information spreading.
A report in socialmedia.com revealed that 71 percent of consumers who have had a positive social media service experience with a brand are likely to recommend it to others. Companies that used one of the more popular social media channels when informing consumers of product or packaging problems suffered from less of a negative sales reaction than organizations that didn’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts.
Even so, Smith recommends that when consumers raise a food safety related issue on social media, companies should take the conversations offline.
“Food safety and customer support teams need to work directly with the consumer to best understand the issue,” he says. “This involves around-the-clock monitoring on social media channels, maintaining a consistent voice across various channels, and leading with the facts—whether that be a press release, respective response, or customer letter.”
The Downside of Social Media
Unfortunately, there are some negatives to relying on social media for communication with consumers. For one, social media channels are open to hacks and hoaxes, which can be very damaging to a brand. And in the social media world, it’s more about a company being “guilty until proven innocent,” which makes it critical to manage negative messaging very carefully.
A study by Lithium revealed that 78 percent of people who complain to a brand via Twitter expect a response within an hour.
Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” And that was before the advent of the Internet!
The speed at which a food safety incident escalates can get out of control. For example, on Dec. 8, 2017, a customer of Primark complained about a fire risk issue relating to a low-cost candle and this single complaint was responsible for 250,000 shares among all major media streams within a matter of hours.
“As an uncontrolled media source, it’s difficult for all parties to determine what is and isn’t fact,” Bentele notes. “As such, it’s critical for companies to have the marketing and PR expertise to help manage social media issues effectively. Honest information will often get lost amongst sensational and inaccurate information.”
Reninger believes the social space has been both a curse and a gift in the area of food crisis. While the messages and conversations being shared by consumers about a brand are more frequently brought to light, being part of the conversation—or at least being aware of it—is a powerful benefit that has not always available to food brands.
“Social listening should be an active and diligent practice of food brands, as food can either nourish us or serve as a toxin,” Reninger says. “The earlier a brand knows about a concern or crisis, the better able it is able to get involved and be a driving part of the solution.”
Preparing for Action
A recall typically takes everyone involved by surprise—it’s a sudden, unplanned event, which is why Tellem notes a company can reduce the fallout by having a crisis plan in place.
“It doesn’t need to be comprehensive, especially if that means you won’t make any plan,” she says. “It needs to be a clear roadmap to follow when the bad thing happens. You are more likely to crack it open and follow it if it is succinct and easy to implement. You will need a top to bottom survey of past incidents and what could go wrong today.”
Team members involved should be those who can think on their feet, have relevant experience, and are close geographically to the business. She also suggests training the spokesperson (and a backup) with a professional media coach by holding on-camera rehearsals and practicing message points.
According to Bentele, companies need to have a robust system in place ready to go if a food safety issue were to pop up, and it needs to be very clear about the company’s understanding of what would be considered as an online crisis, and potential options and preparations to be considered for each.
“Establish a crisis team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities and ensure your business has access to marketing and social media expertise,” he says. “If this isn’t available internally, consider an outsourced provider to assist with strategic planning and support.”
He also suggests regularly running through crisis exercises and drills with the response team and considering including complex social media issues, such as false posts and the spread of misinformation.
“Carry out a full analysis of your worst-case scenarios and engage media liaisons for these, should the worst occur,” Bentele says. “Ensure that when you do encounter a crisis, all parties are secure in their assigned roles. Training and preparation is critical; the businesses that survive crisis issues do not remain silent and will engage with their customers to regain their trust.”
Still, more needs to be done. A recent study on children’s products by the consumer group Kids in Danger found that only 25 percent of manufacturers with a Facebook page use it for product recall news.
In the fast-paced era we live in and 24-hour news cycle, companies need to be monitoring the conversation on social media and be proactive about handling any direction that it might take.
“With limited resources, media are becoming increasingly reliant on social media for their storytelling,” Steinberg says. “Frequently, as food-related social media posting ‘goes viral,’ a media outlet will directly reach out to the poster asking permission for usage, an interview, or other engagement. Seeing these interactions provides brands with an opportunity to engage with both the media and an unsatisfied customer, and be proactive in their crisis response.”