The recent salmonella outbreak that led to the recall of half-a-billion eggs affects businesses far removed from the two big Iowa egg producers at the center of the storm. Most are relatively small ventures struggling to survive in a recession and committed to delivering safe food.
As a communications specialist, I am often called upon for "crisis communications" projects—helping companies respond to and recover from a crisis. In the past five years, I have been directly involved with spinach, lettuce, tomato, strawberry, and dairy operations dealing with food crises. In most cases, trouble at one operation seriously damaged an entire industry. The lessons I learned about rebuilding reputations and brands can be applied to almost any company involved in a crisis, food related or not. Consider the following tips:
1. Express genuine empathy. If your industry is affected by a crisis—whether or not it's your company's fault—you must acknowledge the tragedy and express your feelings early and often. Deflecting blame or failing to express sympathy appears callous and unconcerned, two qualities that must not be associated with your brand if you hope to keep your customers' confidence. I was in a private meeting with an agricultural leader who broke down in tears when she heard that a child had fallen gravely ill after eating contaminated food that wasn't produced by her company. Few people see this side of an industry involved in a crisis. Getting your facts straight before making any kind of public statement is important, but expressing genuine empathy for anyone harmed, injured, or killed must be your first response.
2. Own the message quickly. In the first few hours after a crisis, a huge amount of misinformation spreads online. Too many bloggers simply copy and paste. I recently spoke to a media relations specialist for a large oil company (not BP) who crafted a crisis communications plan for his company in the event of an accident. "If the company's voice isn't heard in the first 24 hours of a crisis—preferably the first six hours—you're dead," he said. "In the age of the Internet, if you duck and run, you will find yourself in big trouble." It takes a leap of courage to be assertive and react quickly. Get your facts straight, reach out directly to principle stakeholders first, and, once everyone is on the same page with the message, start talking.
3. Commit to full transparency. Internal surveys used by the agricultural industry show that the more people know about how their food is grown, the more confident they are in the companies that provide the product. Several groups that I work with in California have leveraged this information and regularly invite outsiders, including the media, to visit farms and processing plants to get a look at the system. Being transparent demonstrates confidence in your product and your manufacturing and distribution methods. Very few companies or industries have the courage to be fully transparent. After a crisis, it might be the only way to rebuild your reputation.
4. Put a face on the industry. The media abhors a vacuum. If you don't put a face on the industry, others will, and it might not be the face you want to show the public. In my work for the agricultural industry, I learned that consumers trust farmers and are left with a very positive impression when they learn more about what farmers do to keep the food they grow safe for consumption. All too often during a crisis, an industry will turn to one official spokesperson. But people want to hear from those in the field, those who do the work. It's critical to offer a group of individuals who are prepared to speak on the topic.
5. Train the industry's spokespeople. It can be quite damaging for an untrained spokesperson to speak to the media directly. Not because he or she has something to hide, but because that person might not realize how easy it is to be misinterpreted or misquoted. Industry associations must commit to training a handful of spokespeople—including those in the field—on key messages. On a football field, it would do very little good for the quarterback to know the plays if the other players were left in the dark. Everyone must speak from the same playbook to create a coherent message.
We get upset at any company that has appeared to take potentially damaging shortcuts in its quest to make money. When a crisis hits your industry, your customers will be quick to believe the worst about you. Committing to the five steps above will help you survive the crisis—and quite possibly, emerge even stronger.