February 09, 2016

For PR and marketing professionals, every headline condemning a company for questionable practices induces a feeling of dread: "Will I be next?"

Today, the food industry is at the center of many of these controversies.  From ingredients to food safety, Chipotle is just the latest in a long line of crises facing food companies across the supply chain.  Some of those headlines are one-day stories that die out quickly, while others can do irreparable damage, and it is often impossible to tell the difference in advance. 

It’s a lot cheaper to prepare 
than it is to react.

One stark example is the study published by the World Health Organization in the fourth quarter of 2015 stating that red and processed meats are carcinogenic.  What looked like a major crisis for the meat industry turned out to be a blip on the radar.  Compare that to the  “pink slime”  crisis --  triggered when Jamie Oliver criticized a long-used ingredient in beef.   This crisis caused many in the industry to remove the ingredient entirely. 

When bad news hits the “controversy” level, it’s also usually too late.  If you haven’t prepared, you’ll be bulldozed by media, critics, nonprofit groups, and your customers.

It’s a lot cheaper to prepare than it is to react. Smart companies should be setting up political war rooms around potentially controversial issues. Here are five strategies for effective preparation:

1.  Do opposition research on your own operations.

Many of these stories are distortions of the truth or facts taken out of context. Think like an activist with a video camera. What could look bad on the evening news or in a Facebook feed? Look at ingredients, production practices, department names, environmental impact—anything that’s hard to pronounce. Start with a long list of potential weaknesses, and prioritize from there.

2.  Identify the negative narratives that already exist.

The carcinogenic meat debate came out of left field. Because most people don’t equate red meat with cancer, the story had less impact. Pink slime, on the other hand, tapped into an existing narrative that fast food restaurants and food companies have been feeding us something for decades — but it isn’t “real” food. When there’s already an accepted narrative, it’s easier for related news to stick in consumers’ minds.

3. Picture it on Instagram.

Another reason the pink slime story spread so quickly is that it was so visual. The words evoke a visceral reaction, and the image is just plain disgusting. Now, try to visualize carcinogenic meat. Not so easy. When there isn’t an easily shareable and shocking image, the story has a harder time going viral and gaining steam. It’s why chemical stories (e.g. glyphosate) often burn more slowly than animal practices stories (e.g. gestation crates for pigs).

4. Prepare your emotional story to counter theirs.

Crises are emotional. You can have all the facts on your side and be right about the science, but if your critics tell a better story, they’re going to win. Once you’ve identified your vulnerabilities, you need to frame your own story on your own terms. For example, companies are often attacked for their production practices. Rather than respond directly, the most effective approach is to broaden the narrative and find some common ground. That may mean focusing on the need to feed a growing population. It rarely means focusing on the details of the criticized practice itself. This is tough to do when under fire; instead, it’s critical to build the language and messaging ahead of time.

5. React quickly.

When you’re developing response plans, make sure they enable you to act fast. When you decide how to act, do it swiftly and unequivocally. In the food industry, some companies stopped on a dime in their fights against GMO labeling when they realized it made them seem like they were hiding something sinister. The olive branches they decided to extend to customers instead changed the subject.

When your company is attacked, the first inclination is usually to attack back. That might feel good, but it often hurts more than it helps. By investing in a little preparation upfront, you can be sure that you don’t turn a blip into a big story, and you can keep a potential catastrophe from becoming a real one.

A version of this article was originally published on PRNews

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