Experts encourage companies to plan ahead for potential negative publicity
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
If Gingerich Farms is ever subject to a food recall, the blueberry company will be ready.
Before the first television satellite truck arrives or the bloggers begin to pile on, the company's managers have prepared a response strategy with the help of consultants hired by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
Without the expertise, responding to a crisis could be overwhelming, said Tim Farnsworth, senior production manager at the Canby, Ore., company, which grows and packs blueberries.
"All the tools you need to handle a recall can be beyond the level that we can muster at once," he said.
The blueberry industry's plan goes beyond reaction. The council constantly scans the horizon for issues that could have an impact on the industry.
Significant events are tracked and disseminated to other farmers through the council's alert system, said Verne Gingerich, the company's president.
"When people are better informed, they also communicate better," said Gingerich, who helped develop the council's crisis response strategy.
The council has also hired a public relations consultant to train farmers in media relations and develop a crisis management website that can immediately go online.
According to public relations experts, the blueberry industry is on the right track by thinking about a crisis before it happens. They say farmers and industry groups should try to anticipate crisis scenarios and plan the best responses.
Increased public scrutiny of agriculture has put the industry on the defensive, said Gerald Baron, CEO of Agincourt Strategies, a crisis communications firm.
"I think the agriculture and food business is in for a very rough ride," he said.
The storm of negative publicity can seem to erupt suddenly when criticisms actually had been building over the long term, said Jerry Bowman, vice president of communications at the Institute of Food Technologists. The recent debacle over "pink slime" -- lean finely textured beef -- is an example.
"It became a raging fire even though it had been smoldering for some time," Bowman said.
In that case, the furor seems to have stemmed from criticism by a celebrity chef a year ago, said Jeremy Russell, communications director for the National Meat Association.
As retailers pulled the product and a petition was launched to ban it from public school meals, each new development spurred even more attention, he said. "It totally fed on itself. It was a panic."
Beef Products Inc., a major producer of lean finely textured beef, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Russell said the episode points to a fundamental challenge in communications for the agriculture industry.
"Things that sound scary get a lot more traction than the truth," he said.
Farmers must be ready to confront questions on multiple fronts, including food safety, immigration, the environment and animal rights, Baron said.
"A lot of it is doing your homework in advance and knowing where your vulnerabilities lie," said Lisa Packer, crisis planning and management expert at the Root Strategies public relations firm.
To establish credibility, companies should communicate with news reporters and with the public through social media before an emergency, said Packer, who has consulted for controversial clients like nuclear power plants.
"If you're going to operate a nuclear plant, you don't wait until there's a problem to make friends with your neighbor," she said.
A "constituency of advocates" should also be identified before any emergency, she said. Advocates should be sought from outside the company but must have a familiarity with the issues, such as food safety or labor practices.
Some emergency situations may have legal repercussions, which is why companies should discuss potential scenarios with attorneys to determine what can be said in public, Bowman said.
Ignoring questions can be damaging to a company's reputation, he said. "You may lose in the court of public opinion when it comes to your brand."
A communication plan must provide a blueprint to deal immediately with emergencies so everybody knows their role in the response effort, Packer said. "It has to work on midnight on Christmas Eve in a blizzard."
In some cases, the introspection required to identify potential crises can result in painful changes, said Baron.
Growers should be ready for their management tools and practices to see the light of day, he said. "If you cannot defend what you're doing in every regard, then change."
One of the most difficult and important tasks in crisis communications is responding with the appropriate degree of force to a problem, Baron said.
Ideally, companies can prevent a full-fledged crisis by responding to negative attention early rather than ignoring it and hoping it will fade away, he said. However, they should be careful not to react too strongly.
"You can blow it both ways," Baron said. "If you overplay it, you may create a crisis that might not have existed otherwise."
Online tools like Google Alerts and Twitter can help farmers see what is being said about their brand or crop, but it's not realistic for them to counter every insult or derogatory remark, he said.
"If you react to every one of these, you're going to go crazy and do nothing but fan the flames," Baron said.
If a subject does look like it's gaining traction, companies should remember to reach out to important stakeholders -- customers, employees and investors -- to prepare them for negative media attention, he said.
Baron recommends several degrees of response to problems: reactive, semi-proactive and proactive.
In the reactive stage, a company will simply write a standby statement to answer likely questions.
In the semi-proactive stage, the issue is addressed more publicly, such as posting information to the company website.
If a problem is clearly becoming a big deal, the company should implement a proactive strategy by reaching out to the public and media.
When a company knows it has made a mistake or its actions have resulted in harm, trying to minimize the problem or shift blame can be detrimental -- particularly if it later turns out to be part of a broader pattern, said Jason Ellis, agricultural communications professor at Kansas State University.
"They need to be willing to accept that responsibility," Ellis said.