In a world of increasingly efficient connectivity and discerning public opinions, companies must strive to include innovative communication strategies in their crisis management plans. It’s undeniable that the advent of global communication and social media has forever changed how the public reacts to strong mental images, such as the ones that are unavoidable in critical situations. It’s not just industry entities that must plan for crisis; scandal can hit academic institutions and governmental agencies just as easily. In the end, we all have to answer to global consumers.

No longer is it sufficient to use the old crisis management manual that has been sitting on the shelf, gathering dust. Today’s proactive planning must incorporate innovative solutions to mitigate the inevitable repercussions when a negative event takes place. The detrimental ramifications have the possibility to go beyond the directly affected individuals/factors to cause widespread fallout. This includes the many indirect ripples caused by the original incident—some of which can be easily planned for and some that can never be predicted.

Understanding the Blow to Public Confidence and Brand Trust
How does this relate back to food safety? In today’s world, food safety has become intrinsically tied to quality assurance. In the infancy of my career, I naïvely thought quality assurance was just ensuring we made a safe product, according to governmental, customer and in-house requirements. Now I understand that I’m also the guardian of my customer’s brand. The concept of brand trust and the reputation of your company/organization have become progressively important over the years, and increasingly fragile and hard to protect, in this world of global enterprise, social media and instant access to information.

Edelman, the global public relations company and experts on trust, describes its vital nature by declaring, “We believe that trust is an asset that enterprises must understand and properly manage in order to be successful in today’s complex operating environment. Unlike reputation, which is based on an aggregate of past experiences with a company or brand, trust is [a] forward-facing metric of stakeholder expectation.”[1]

We’re assessing the risks, designing the plan, forming teams, performing annual mock are doing everything correctly…the problem is that the game has changed and this may no longer afford sufficient protection.

In this new world of global communication, your company must be prepared, not only for the crisis but also to handle the inevitable events that occur afterward. As a crisis team, search for companies that have been heavily impacted by unfavorable public reaction, via social media, and ask the question, “Could this happen to us?” Take a very objective look at your company, products, process, etc. and examine each from the general public’s point of view. Talk to your friends and family, outside of the food industry, and ask their opinion. Do genetically modified organisms (GMOs) worry you? If you saw Diane Sawyer featuring this story, would you be concerned enough to stop eating that product or buying from that company?

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them
The food safety industry is no stranger to crisis mitigation. We’re the poster children for proactive management. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), prerequisite plans and verification audits are all tools firmly in our toolbox. Now is the time to add reactive strategies to your company’s arsenal. We must expand this toolbox to embrace advanced communication technology platforms by formulating innovative means to facilitate the rapid release of messaging.

The first step is to fully understand what is being said about your company or brand. Some have added head count, even entire departments, to accomplish this task. There are also services that monitor your company’s name and will flag it when associated with potentially negative stories. You can’t react to something of which you are unaware.

Another tool used by many is a blackout site, which is often created as a proactive means to quickly respond to crisis. These are website pages that are developed and fully functional but not accessible to the general public until activated. There are prevalent food safety and crisis-related issues that can be anticipated: outbreaks, recalls and unforeseen incidents that are commonly associated with your product/industry. Companies that have these sites constructed, and their preliminary responses already formulated, can propagate specific information and employ a rapid response to certain situations. Why is a rapid statement so vital? The Internet is the research destination for most people, and the first place they seek for answers is a search engine. The strong majority of selections are taken from the first page of generated links; so much so that the corporations behind these engines charge top dollar to be predominantly featured in a keyword search. By releasing your message quickly, it will accumulate hits and naturally ascend to the top of queries.

My younger brother keeps me informed of all the crazy food stories that I might miss. (It seems that only a person under the age of 30 has the time/energy/skills to continuously monitor social media for contentious topics.) Last year, he told me about a story involving one of our favorite fast food chains. It seems that one of their teenage employees had taken a picture of himself licking the chain’s product and posted it directly to the company’s Facebook page. It was an easy leap to assume that this associate had served people this product. I immediately did what everyone else does and Googled “(insert product name) lick.” (Yes, I’m not very creative with my keyword searches.) I expected all the initial links to be gossipy websites blasting the company, indignant bloggers or media outlets trying to whip people into a frenzy. What I got instead was a link to this company’s official press release on their website, addressing the rumor. There was no denial, hiding or story spinning; I found their message to be very thorough, transparent and included all the important items that are critical to controlling backlash. The really impressive part was that this well-developed message was available within 24 hours of the photos being posted. They could have easily removed the photos and pretended the incident didn’t happen, but chose to formulate a response in anticipation of the story going viral. The pictures were definitely contentious enough to garner attention, but this didn’t devolve into a full-blown scandal, because the company took swift, transparent action.

Several methods can be implemented to predict future issues, so that proper strategies can be developed to quickly, and effectively, counter negative responses. This is generally referred to as AIM (anticipatory issues management), a way to thoughtfully and thoroughly examine conceivable impact points on the horizon. A common method for organizing and visualizing this activity is through the development of an AIM map. This tool will mitigate exposure through identification, prioritization and strategizing to avoid risk and react to unforeseen instances. It begins with an ideation session, held with several stakeholders across the enterprise, to compile a large list of future issues. These topics are then independently ranked according to likelihood, impact to the company and maturity (when the issue is expected to reach the public spotlight). Everyone’s analysis is averaged and graphed to form a visual representation, which can be used to prioritize contingency planning. This map is periodically revisited and adjusted when the crisis planning is reviewed.

Risk assessments have been around for quite a long time, but they are making a resurgence and being repurposed to expand the normal parameters and take additional variables into consideration. Previously, you might have utilized risk assessments on raw materials for an HACCP plan and considered biological, chemical and physical hazards. Maybe you even went so far as to add radiological hazards in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. I invite everyone to (pardon the colloquialism) step outside the box and expand your analysis to other variables that might have a prohibitive impact.

Should you expand your analysis to encompass quality attributes? You may have never imposed proscriptive requirements around the color of your product, but if a consumer finds an objectionable bottle of gray canola oil on the shelves and starts blogging about it, your label will be predominantly displayed in all the pictures. Mandatory country-of-origin labeling has exposed formulated products to intensive scrutiny. Suddenly, food scandals outside your normal sphere of sourcing and distribution are coming to haunt you. Does your honey supplier source from China? Could you be implicated in their continuous antibiotic scandals?

The public, as a whole, has developed sophisticated opinions and expanded its arena of concern outside normal food safety issues, to become more and more obsessed with quality concerns and origin of its food.

Virtually Every Person with a Cell Phone Camera Is a Cinematographer
The high-resolution camera features of today’s affordable cell phones have turned every person with a cell phone into a cinematographer. When paired with the ease with which that picture and video are uploaded to the Internet, it is impossible to control the flow of information.

To better illustrate this point, take a look at these two photos of St. Peter’s Square taken during Pope Benedict’s and Pope Francis’s papal debuts. It’s a great example of our obsession with digital communication. How many of those individuals, do you think, downloaded their images to the Internet before even leaving the square (Figure 1)?

Containment is no longer an option when it comes to information. I have a colleague whose company recently had an unfortunate accident that resulted in a few associate injuries. The company had a great safety record and good proactive planning, but accidents happen. Company leadership executed all the proper contingencies in a rapid timeline, and everything seemed to be handled: situation controlled, injuries treated, root-cause analysis conducted and preventive measures launched. The event was unfortunate, but the crisis plan successfully controlled the situation and, by the end of the day, things looked to be returning to normal...until everyone was blindsided by the local 6 o’clock news, which featured pictures of bleeding employees in full sight of company logos with a newscaster questioning the company’s commitment to safety. Management was floored; it did everything according to the program, but what it failed to anticipate was that one of the injured associates took video while he was being loaded into the ambulance and alerted the local media for his 15 minutes of fame.

Today’s crisis management must assume that there will be video of every unforeseen incident and craft solutions accordingly. The concept of containing news just isn’t a feasible strategy. 

Communication: Public Discourse
Companies must begin formulating responses to possible unforeseen events and to mitigate backlash. Thoughtful consideration must be given to public response to topics that might evoke strong emotional reactions, and our industry is one of the most susceptible. It really doesn’t get more personal than stories of illness and death, especially in populations that often succumb to foodborne illness: children, elderly, immunocompromised and pregnant women.

Bloggers have become an increasingly influential source of news and information. Some are true subject matter experts, but a good portion pass off intellectual opinions that are assimilated as truth by their readers. The Edelman Trust Barometer polled thousands of people and asked them to rank different sources of information as a “credible spokesperson.” In 2011, the response, “a person like yourself” versus “CEO” was 34 percent and 50 percent, respectively. This same question garnered a vastly different response, just a year later, when recipients responded that they were more likely to trust “a person like yourself,” which rose to 65 percent, and “CEO” plummeted to 38 percent (Figure 2).[2]

Consider using blogging as a radical means to establish your company as a trusted authority. There was a small, organic baby food company that recently went through a product recall. Can you imagine a more discerning consumer base or a more perilous position? The president of this company happened to be an active “mommy blogger” and successfully managed the situation with established ties through social media. She had already developed a solid reputation and was able to navigate her customer base through the event by giving them up-to-date facts: Only the jars containing apricots made during the month of April were affected. It may have not been intentional, but her established lines of communication probably saved that company. When she gave them the facts, they believed her and continued to buy her product.

Another successful tactic used to establish your company as a trusted source of information is to immerse yourself in active discussions which take a proactive stance on contentious topics. Field “Q&A” pages on your website; these may directly addresse hard, persistent urban legends which often haunt companies for years. By tackling these sensational topics, directly with the consumer, much of the mystery is dissolved. Through social media, companies can engage in active discussion which will lead to dispel false rumors and lend credibility to truthful explinations. Offering transparency, a look behind the curtain, often serves to steer a questioning public to seek answers directly from the source (your company).

Proactive engagement with social media might be one of the best ways to develop a solid reputation before crisis strikes. This could mean the difference in keeping your crisis from becoming a catastrophe.

Areas of Concern on the Horizon
The greatest potential exposure point for the food industry might be GMOs; it should hold a prominent place on almost everyone’s AIM map. This isn’t exactly a new topic; after all, the technology has been used for more than two decades and the idea of modifying agricultural commodities to extract desirable characteristics has been around for thousands of years. It’s such a widespread practice that currently around 80 percent of U.S. products include GM ingredients. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 93 percent of soybeans and 85 percent of corn are grown from herbicide-tolerant (HT) seeds (Figure 3).[3] Over the past decade, foreign countries have created more and more prescriptive labeling laws for imported food products. Their governments are reacting to public perception that GMOs are unsafe, especially in Asian countries in which this technology isn’t commonly employed.

Another possible threat to the food safety industry is the growing negative perception of processing, preservatives, irradiation and pesticides. It’s ironic, and disconcerting, that many of the strategies employed as microbial hurdles have the potential to cause such controversy. It has become very common for consumer groups to lay suit to large food companies over “natural” claims. These possible exposure points must be considered by everyone and strategy used to ensure that you have a voice if possible controversy strikes.

Become a proper guardian to your company, organization and customer’s brand by having the foresight to look past the common risks and consider alternate hazards. Expand the lines of communication and establish trust with your consumers and stakeholders, so they will believe your message and not the rumor mill. Lastly, truly test your systems and the training of your associates. Preventive methods might not be enough to stop an unforeseen situation. There’s always the threat of accident or intentional issues, so reactive strategies must also be derived to navigate public opinion and maintain brand trust against the unexpected.

Wendy White, M.Sc., is the director of corporate food safety and quality at Golden State Foods, a premier foodservice manufacturing and distribution company. The company’s business units include liquid products (sauces/dressings), dairy, beef and produce facilities across the globe. Her role encompasses food safety, regulatory compliance, risk mitigation, customer relationships, brand protection and supply chain management. She can be reached at