All kidding aside, where has PR been during the spinach/E. coli scare?
Dole, Natural Selection Foods and their industry seem asleep at the wheel. This is pretty bad considering they’re surely hard at work trying to address this complex problem.
Yet, even though news coverage has been heavy since the 15th, there has been no face to this crisis and little consistency in comments made by industry sources.
Several Voices, Mixed Messages
Enough sources have commented, on behalf of an array of associations, to tell me two things—the industry is fragmented and none of the associations are working together on communications.
PR Week tried to do a story. “Companies reached by PRWeek declined to comment about their communications plans. "Right now, the only education people need is to throw it away," said Jerry Welcome, EVP for business development, United Fresh Produce Association.
Wow. Revoke this guy’s phone privileges and sign him up for media training.
According to PR Week Tim Chelling, communications VP for the Western Growers Association, said his job, representing the 3,000-member agricultural industry policy and issues group, was to serve as "the most credible spokesperson possible."
He sounds pretty confident about pulling this off. The president of the association has also been quoted, noting "We have to do everything to assure the American public that our food is safe to consume."
Ad Age’s calls were returned (reg. req.). Another set of sources note that the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association is launching “a counter-offensive advertising campaign as soon as the FDA shifts its advisory against bagged fresh spinach.”
Laura Hubrich, marketing manager for the Earthbound Farms brand, said the brand will use its small media budget to develop an ad responding to the crisis. Earthbound spent $1.8 million in media during January through June of this year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Dole, which last year suffered a far-smaller E. coli outbreak surrounding its pre-packaged salads, managed to sustain sales by "being upfront, transparent, working with authorities and [due to budgets that rule out paid media] using consumer education -- packages in stores and the internet -- to communicate the safety of our products," said Marty Ordman, VP-marketing and communications for Dole.
Waiting on the ads makes sense, but the time is NOW to establish awareness of what the industry is doing to change. A coordinated PR effort would serve as ground cover in the association’s “counter offensive,” making the ads more effective. And it won’t take a multi-million-dollar campaign to do it.
The Problem with Waiting? The Media Assigns Meaning
If crisis plans were in place for something like this, you couldn’t tell based on the industry’s wide-ranging media response. In lieu of good quotes, the media are referencing other crises, comparing the E. coli outbreak to everything from the Odwalla E. coli crisis to an aircraft-accident investigation and even the 1989 Alar-tainted apple scare.
This could be a compliment if it the aftermath of the crisis. To compare the spinach scare to other crisis now does the industry no favors.
Consumers are looking for answers and they’re creating their own without enough input from the produce industry. As a result, the ads will have tough sledding in re-establishing consumer confidence.
"The thing that is more fragile than this product is consumer confidence, the trust that consumers have in our ability as farmers, processors, retailers and restaurant operators," said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association. "That's what we've got to focus on."
He’s right. But if they think an ad campaign, a skinny online effort and no coordinated public relations will get them to their goal, they’re mistaken.