Public relations disasters can be as real and damaging as anything Mother Nature can conjure.
Consider the recent furor surrounding lean finely textured beef (LFTB). Within two weeks of an inaccurate, sensationalized report from ABC News, Beef Products, Inc., one of the nation’s primary LFTB suppliers, was forced by consumer backlash to idle three of its four processing facilities. About a month later, BPI shuttered those three plants permanently. More than 600 folks lost their jobs. Just like that.
Toward the tail end of these events, USDA announced the fourth case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) discovered in the U.S. – the first since 2006. The same court of public opinion that tried and convicted LFTB without mercy barely raised an eyebrow.
Consumer familiarity with BSE was undoubtedly part of the evenhanded media and consumer reaction. But so was the proactive, cohesive crisis communications management plan crafted by the industry before it was needed when that first case of BSE showed up in the U.S. just before Christmas in 2003. Consumer response to the most recent BSE case underscores the residual benefits of that initial plan.
Conversely, when response finally did come to the LFTB firestorm unleashed by the ABC News report, it raised as many questions as it answered initially.
Chef Jamie Oliver aired a show about LFTB about a year earlier that was arguably even more sensational and inaccurate than the ABC report. Before that there was an article on LFTB in the New York Times. Along the way, fast-food giants announced they would no longer use ground beef containing LFTB.
Any responses to this ticking bomb were obviously ineffective.
“While the gate may have been down, the cow didn’t have to leave the pasture,” says Rick Purnell, owner of RPR Company, an ag-based public relations, communication and marketing firm. “There was a brief period during which effective media monitoring, meetings with key influencers and discussions with customers may have slowed or stopped things. Sadly, the entire herd barrelled through the fence and took a lot of livelihoods with it.”
Keep in mind that BSE is an industry issue. LFTB is a specific product issue. However, consumer concerns about that product became an industry issue.
BSE response came as a unified industry voice, a cohesive industry plan via the checkoff. With LFTB, processors behind the product and organizations representing them seemed to respond individually and without a common message. Ultimately, the broader industry dove in, too, trying to mitigate the damage. Major retailers responded by distancing themselves from LFTB faster than cats flee a wash tub.
The lesson, Purnell says, for individual operations and collective industries, is this: “Whether you’re running a food plant, fuel refinery or a feedyard, a crisis communications plan is central to keeping things on track when anything that can go wrong does go wrong. No operation, no matter how large or small, can afford to operate without a crisis communications plan.”
Crisis management plans are necessarily unique to each entity, but Purnell explains they are proactive and revolve around honesty and transparency. Like the industry’s BSE response, crisis management plans are designed to be implemented when they’re needed, not as soon as possible after the inevitable goes awry.
“Crisis management planning includes creating and rehearsing what you’ll say and how you’ll say it when the train runs off the tracks,” Purnell says. “Creating the plan means that you analyze specific threats and develop key messages for each scenario you or your outside counsel come up with. Next, you create and practice factual, empathetic and honest responses you’ll share with the media. You also identify allies and friendly supporters who will restate your messages on your behalf.”
Like life itself, crisis management planning is a journey rather than a destination. Once you have a plan, Purnell says, you review it, adjust for time and events, rehearse, and practice again.