“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” —Warren Buffett

What began with a belly-ache soon would become the mother of all PR headaches. Before it was over, four children were dead, hundreds were sickened (scores of whom were permanently debilitated), consumer confidence was shaken and a company’s reputation—indeed, its very existence—teetered on a precipice.

It started on Christmas Eve in 1992 when 6-year-old Lauren Rudolph, exhibiting many of the symptoms of intestinal flu, was taken to a San Diego emergency room.

Soon it became clear that it was much more serious than a garden-variety stomach bug.

As doctors puzzled over the cause of her illness, Lauren’s condition quickly deteriorated. She endured excruciating pain and dehydration. Her kidneys failed. This child of 6 even suffered heart attacks.

And then within just 3 days, little Lauren was dead. But how could a girl who was the very picture of health one day systemically collapse virtually the next?

Eventually the culprit would be identified as a simple but deadly bacterium known as Escherichia coli O157:H7, the source of which was traced back to undercooked hamburgers eaten at Jack in the Box restaurants—or as the Los Angeles Times eventually would dub it, “The bug that ate the burger.” Its notoriety would spread almost as fast as it was transmitted to its victims, going from barely a blip on the public’s radar to a household term at lightning speed.

The E. coli scare of 1992–93 was a bellwether for food safety, issues management and crisis communications.

A bevy of far-reaching regulatory changes would follow. E. coli O157:H7 was formally declared an adulterant in beef, the first time the term had been applied to something other than chemical contaminants or foreign objects. Additional testing and sampling were now required. Multiple recalls occurred in subsequent years, and other strains of E. coli were added to the list of adulterants. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) became mandatory industrywide, up and down the supply chain.

And it worked. E. coli levels in U.S. ground beef dropped 80 percent from their high in 2001, and it was the only major foodborne pathogen that actually fell below the government’s target rate.

But beyond stricter regulations, could social media, had it existed 20 years ago, have mitigated the impacts on consumers and even saved lives? How would it have changed the company’s approach to issues management and crisis communication? Whether things would have turned out differently is an interesting counterfactual to consider.

Today’s Communication Portfolio
The days when E. coli was first thrust into the public’s consciousness, and the communications methods that were considered state-of-the-art at the time, seem almost quaint and alien to us now. In 1992, fax machines only recently had become a common sight in offices. The Internet was little more than the province of government and academics. That year, then-Senator Al Gore “took the initiative” to push a law opening the Internet to commercial uses, the World Wide Web had barely turned one year old and the first widely available web browser was created.

Meanwhile, the future creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was 7 years old. MSNBC, FOX News Channel and the first flip phone wouldn’t come into existence for 4 more years.

PR practitioners were beginning to distribute news releases by fax—dealing with the vicissitudes of empty toner cartridges and paper jams on the receiving end—but many of them still relied heavily on snail mail. E-mail was a new tool in a few offices, but many viewed it as a text version of the intercom, not as a tool for communicating with the masses.

Despite the limited tactics and technologies at the time, Jack in the Box salvaged its reputation and viability to a remarkable degree, albeit slowly. While the company’s initial response was criticized by some as dilatory, shifting blame and insensitive, Jack in the Box soon took bold steps to make things right. It would later be seen as a textbook response in effective reputation management.

Most critically, the company was one of the first restaurants to introduce the aforementioned HACCP plan, which conveyed a get-tough approach that went far beyond typical industry practices and guidance. Cooking times and temperatures were increased. Employees were retrained. Complaints were fielded via a toll-free telephone number. Victims were compensated for their medical costs.

The company also didn’t let potential legal liabilities stand in the way of a frank, accountable and transparent response, which eventually helped win back public confidence. Bold yet very human advertisements portrayed a company that knew the gravity of the situation and was making major changes.

But layering social media on top of such a crisis today would reveal a much more complex communications environment, demanding a smarter, faster and more vigorous response. External threats from customers, critics and the media would be more amplified and immediate, but a company similarly situated today also would have far more opportunities and tools at its disposal.

Dan Webber, a vice president at PR firm Edelman (see “From One Tweet to a Full-Blown Crisis: Social Media Crisis Management,”), has listed the opportunities he believes are made possible by social media in the food safety realm:

•    Reputation building, marketing and consumer advocacy

•    Providing insight into consumer perceptions

•    Identifying advocates and idea starters

•    Disseminating warnings and benefits through food safety education

•  Tracking and tracing issues more easily

•  Spotting or reporting issues sooner across the supply chain

It might seem like obvious advice, but every business that cares about reaching customers has little choice but to establish an active presence on social media. With more than 1 billion people on Facebook and more than 500 million Twitter users, anyone who wants to remain competitive or to have their messages break through the din must enter the fray—or “fish where the fish are,” as the saying goes.

The opportunities Webber outlines are beneficial not just for businesses but for consumers too. Getting out accurate information and correcting the record are in everyone’s interests, and when issues arise, they are best addressed where the conversations are taking place. Otherwise, a communicator might as well be crying out in the wilderness.

While proactive communicators and skilled issues managers are worth their weight in gold, they inevitably spend much of their time in a reactive mode, dealing with the things that keep them up at night. The best communicators are those who are aware of the challenges inherent in social media, who prepare for them and who know what to do in the face of adversity.

Long gone are the days when a toll-free complaint line was sufficient to connect with consumers. Today’s conversations take place in real time. News spreads within a matter of hours if not minutes. As Mark Twain reportedly once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” What was stated in jest before the days of air travel is now the literal truth.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) is one organization that is steeped in risk communications and crisis communications. With a mission to ensure that sound, credible science is central to discussions about food, it follows time-tested principles of rapid response, which are constantly being refined as new technologies and modes of communication change where and how people interact.

IFIC constantly monitors both traditional and social media across a wide array of nutrition and food safety topics. It coordinates and participates in stakeholder groups that facilitate information exchange and often serve as early-warning systems for emerging issues. It produces, in cooperation with independent experts, a variety of materials—publications, FAQs, media backgrounders and stand-by statements—for use with audiences including health professionals, industry, journalists and the public.

These proactive issues-management techniques provide a more stable and effective foundation from which crisis communications efforts emerge.

Whether an issue is of immediate or ongoing concern, IFIC first attempts to determine its scope and potential impact, and whether it is truly within the organization’s “wheelhouse.”

From there, IFIC then evaluates whether significant media attention is anticipated based on monitoring of the communications environment and prior interest levels in similar subjects and proactively reaches out to relevant reporters, or reacts to requests for information. IFIC also ensures that the best resources and scientific experts are available for any given issue.

Along the way, social media channels are always part of the calculus, especially if there is significant public interest or need to know. While organizations’ websites will be a critical arrow in their communications quiver for the foreseeable future, the information housed there will go largely unnoticed without vigorous social media and search-optimization plans.

After communications are disseminated to the relevant audiences, IFIC continues to monitor the issue to determine any additional responses to it or needed follow-up. Any necessary adjustments are then made to the communications strategies and tactics.

Next Step: A Response Network
When putting risk into perspective for consumers, it’s important to remember that consumers base their beliefs and reactions on their own interpretations of the risk in relation to individual family needs, health and safety. When framing messages about food risks, IFIC recommends a few guiding principles to help improve public understanding, including the use of empowering words to increase consumer confidence:

•    Intuitive because they “just make sense”

•    Certain and definitive

•    Showing that action is taking place

•    Instructive and prescriptive so that people know what to do

•    Actually used by consumers

Conversely, negative concepts evoke fear and uncertainty.

The National Center for Food Protection and Defense further recommends steps for ongoing risk communication strategies:

• Planning ahead for prompt responses, including establishing a crisis communication network and being willing to accept uncertainty

• Communicating responsibly by forming partnerships with the public, acknowledging public concern and being open and honest

• Minimizing harm by being accessible to the media, communicating compassion and providing suggestions for self-protection    

•    Underlying all of those strategies is a process to continuously evaluate and update crisis plans, while acknowledging and accounting for cultural differences

Twenty years ago, the daily news cycle was largely dictated by The New York Times. The “Gray Lady” printed it and the Big Four news networks—ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN—followed its lead.

Now, of course, information is 24/7. It’s global. News increasingly breaks first on Twitter—whether tweeted by “traditional” reporters, pajama-clad bloggers or ordinary eyewitnesses. It’s hard to believe a scrappy Internet startup that’s barely 8 years old has all but supplanted arguably the most respected newspaper in the country as journalism’s agenda setter, but this is the world we now live in.

News also breaks on YouTube, where the most popular videos have hundreds of millions of views. When comparing unique users, YouTube has about 50 percent more viewers than the three major network newscasts combined.

A recent example of YouTube shaping conversations about food was an infamous animated film showing a dejected scarecrow wandering around a dystopian, large-scale food production facility. Blue skies burst through foreboding gray clouds just as the protagonist whips up some tasty burritos with homegrown vegetables; oddly, any form of meat was missing from his culinary creation. (And was it just a strange coincidence that the advertisers used a literal “straw man” to go along with their metaphorical one? It’s little wonder that a major advertising agency declared it the worst ad of 2013.)

Not only has the company’s ad received 11.8 million views as of this writing, but also it was covered extensively in the mainstream media. It drove up subscribers to the company’s YouTube channel by nearly one-quarter, was commented on more than 13,000 times and was shared on social media nearly 29,000 times.

Think back to 1996, when Oprah’s fear of bovine spongiform encephalopathy led her to ostentatiously swear off hamburgers. Texas beef producers, who held her at least partially responsible for declining beef prices, unsuccessfully sued her under food disparagement laws. Now imagine how much more extensive the impact would have been if YouTube had existed at the time and Oprah’s original comments had gone as viral as that burrito-peddling scarecrow.

Aside from the broadcast television networks and the thousands of cable and satellite channels, millions of people are viewing more and more content on a host of platforms like Netflix, Amazon and others. An accelerating number of those people are “cutting the cable,” watching 100 percent of their video through the Internet.

There is also what can probably be best described as “pseudo-news.” Some websites purporting to offer health and nutrition news, published by nonexperts, gain huge followings as they churn out fringe science and outlandish claims. The more conspiratorially minded believe such assertions because they have convinced themselves that the government and health professionals are somehow less trustworthy than Internet charlatans.

High Technology, Low Rationality
Social media has upended everything we thought we knew about mass communication. Every food-related kerfuffle becomes an opportunity for tweeting, fact or fiction, which is actually believed and followed by millions, fueled in large part by the fallibility of social media users themselves and an inability to judge risks rationally.

We rarely give a second thought to getting behind the wheel of an automobile and hurtling down the road in the opposite direction of thousands of other two-ton death machines. But few of us in the wake of a deadly automobile accident—whether as individuals or well-heeled advocacy groups—take to social media and proclaim, “This confirms my fear that driving is inherently unsafe!” Balanced against other risks, such a reaction—or lack of one—is entirely rational.

Yet the odds of dying in a car crash in the U.S. are roughly 10 times greater than the chances you’ll die from a foodborne illness or food allergy. If you think the number of fretful Tweets about cars is anywhere near those about the “dangers” hidden in our food, then you haven’t been paying attention to social media.

George Orwell once said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Nowhere is this struggle greater than in perceptions about food safety. The trends over the past 20 years suggest an inversely proportionate relationship between the actual threats and the perceived ones, and the viral nature and cacophony of social media undoubtedly play a role.

Since 1996, infection rates of E. coli O157:H7, Listeria and Campylobacter have fallen dramatically. The Salmonella trend line has been more stable but still points downward. (Vibrio rates have increased sharply, although much of the jump might be attributable to the fact that it only became a reportable illness in 2007.) In terms of the number of outbreaks, a normalized trend line over the first decade of the 21st century is down more than one-third.

But other statistics paint a compelling picture of a society nonetheless consumed with overblown or nonexistent threats. Put more simply, the fears are rising, but the dangers are falling.

Google Ngram, which searches the text of millions of books and therefore is a good barometer of the public dialogue, shows that uses of the term “foodborne illnesses” more than tripled between 1993 and 2008. (Ngram statistically controls for the relative number of books published each year.) On one recent day, there were at least 100 petitions on Change.org, a hotbed of discontent, which mentioned “food safety.”

In its 2013 Food and Health Survey, the IFIC Foundation asked people whether they had confidence in the food supply. While 70 percent answered “yes,” that number was down from 78 percent in 2012. One hypothesis was that the horsemeat scandal was in full bloom while the survey was being conducted, but in that instance it’s a case where the perception and reality of food safety were at odds. Another example was the public uproar over lean finely textured beef, dubbed “pink slime” by the media.

As the preeminent risk communicator Peter Sandman has said, “The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different.”

BuzzFeed.com, which was born in 2006, has built a massive audience curating content (some would call it “infringing”) from other websites and serving it up in the form of “listicles.” The millions who visit the site every day are exposed to a lot of link-bait masquerading as legitimate journalism.

For example, a BuzzFeed story from June 2013 breathlessly decried “eight foods we eat in the U.S. that are banned in other countries.” The piece, which is full of iffy science and nearly devoid of context, was written by BuzzFeed’s travel editor, who until barely a year ago wasn’t even a full-time journalist.

The article inspired ABC News to post a story on its website. A far more balanced piece, it actually consulted a range of chemists and scientific experts, one of whom said, “The amount of understanding in the [BuzzFeed] article was so minimal, it really pushed my buttons as a scientist.” That story’s author is, shall we say, much more journalistically credentialed.

So which of the two pieces went viral? To ask the question is to answer it.

To date, the BuzzFeed article has received 5.6 million views, 476,000 Facebook likes and 14,000 Tweets. The ABC News version, on the other hand, has garnered a total of 3,500 Facebook likes and fewer than 400 Tweets. (The number of viewers couldn’t immediately be determined.)

Or take the notorious “Séralini affair.” A September 2012 study by molecular biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini and others purported to show that rats fed a type of genetically engineered corn had a high tendency to develop cancerous tumors. The paper was roundly mocked by other scientists for its flawed methodology and unsupportable conclusions, as well as the ethics and behavior of its author, to the point where the paper was ultimately retracted by the journal that published it.

Yet even today, the thoroughly discredited study occasionally shambles back across the social media landscape like a zombie looking for its next unwary victim. Despite the utter lack of evidence documenting ill health effects from foods produced through biotechnology, a search on Google Trends shows that the frequency on the Internet of terms such as “GMO and unhealthy” has more than doubled since 2006.

If it seems like online dialogues about food evoke stronger emotions and higher decibel levels than other subjects, then one potential reason why might be found hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years ago.

While this is probably more the purview of Psychology Today than Food Safety Magazine, some evolutionary psychologists believe that primitive fear mechanisms, whether physiological or emotional, can override our brains’ logic centers—despite a naive belief among some that we have evolved beyond “fight or flight.”

When a caveman spotted a saber-toothed tiger, he didn’t stick around to find out if its intentions were friendly. Fleeing gave him a better chance of surviving—and reproducing. So fear, or at least caution, was an evolutionary advantage.

The primal threats involved not just predators and the environment, but also food. There was a significant chance of keeling over after eating the wrong plant or berry, so fears about what we consumed became hard-coded in our DNA. Because these prehistoric hazards were far more ubiquitous than they are now, our modern brains often perceive mountainous threats where only molehills exist.

Now suppose that caveman erroneously believes wolves lurk around every corner, and he voices his fears loudly and often.

Incessant injection of junk science and overblown claims of risk into public discourse, then, are literally the modern-day version of “crying wolf.” With only slight hyperbole, if consumers heeded every single utterance from the tweeters of doom, they would be left with a diet of little more than water—and there are some who would scare people off that too.

Unlike in the past, when state-of-the-art communication was folklore or smoke signals or even the Big Four TV networks, any kid today with a computer and Internet connection can cry wolf on a global stage.

This is not in any way to dismiss the positive power of social media in advancing food safety. If a deadly strain of bacteria truly is on the loose in the food chain, then admonitions on Twitter or Facebook to avoid certain products or take certain precautions are wise to heed. The viral nature of social networks can spread word of a food recall long before the first “breaking news” banner goes up on television.

Similar to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s PulseNet, social media can help pinpoint food safety concerns and foodborne illness outbreaks before they get out of control—a sophisticated new way of crunching data some are calling “infodemiology.” Algorithms theoretically can be designed to search streams of Tweets for reports of symptoms, cross-referenced geographically. Probably the best-known current application of this is Google Flu Trends, which mines reams of data for search terms related to flu symptoms, remedies and so forth to produce a highly accurate map of where the risk of contracting the flu is greatest.

Government is also getting in the game of using social media to monitor health threats and communicate risks. For instance, CDC has created a widget for blogs where consumers can get quick and easy access to a database of food recalls. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service has developed state-specific Twitter feeds about food safety. (Despite the good intentions, however, few of the state feeds have more than a few dozen followers nearly 2 years after launching.)

But the social media sword cuts both ways, and the law of unintended consequences can always come into play. For example, if unfounded fears about a particular substance in food lead people to stop eating it, they might end up depriving themselves of other crucial nutrients that are also found in that same food.

As research by the IFIC Foundation has found over and over, all of the conflicting messages about what not to eat have left consumers baffled about their food and beverage choices. In fact, we have found that consumers find it less confusing to do their taxes than to know which foods to eat to maintain a healthful diet.

Social networks by definition are insular, exclusive entities. IFIC Foundation research consistently shows that family and friends strongly influence what a person chooses to believe and the food consumption decisions they make. Without competing perspectives to pierce the information bubble, existing perceptions and misperceptions are reinforced, leading to confirmation bias—that is, when we listen only to information that confirms what we already believe.

IFIC Foundation research finds that government and health professionals are also viewed as credible sources of information about food and health, but how many of us follow CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, USDA or any medical societies on social media? Credibility doesn’t always equal influence, which is a problem if you believe who gets the most retweets isn’t an ideal way to make sound laws, policies and decisions about food.

Emotions are what make us human, what set us apart from other species. But they are also fallible and capricious, whereas science is rational and dispassionate. Unless our future is one where we evolve to a Vulcan-like state of logic, there will always be overwrought purveyors of chaos and misinformation.

It takes only a moment to hit the “Share” button when the latest headline comes shrieking across our computer monitors—certainly less time than it takes to read something in its entirety, weigh competing ideas and then offer a thoughtful comment on social media.

But which choice is truly more evolved? 

Matt Raymond is senior director of communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and IFIC Foundation.

Anthony Flood is senior director of food safety and defense communications at IFIC and IFIC Foundation. Dietetic interns Becky Gates and Leigh Tracy of the University of Maryland contributed to this article.