When Industry Knowledge Matters, Are You Protected?

Posted on Apr 5, 2012 in CHI Insight
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If your company were faced with a public relations challenge because your product or service caused alleged harm to another business, its employees or members of the general public, what would you do?

If the answer is, “Wait and see what happens,” you are definitely asking for trouble.


Putting a crisis communications plan in place

If you are a manufacturer, you likely know the risks of something going wrong with your product. Still, no one can anticipate all the possibilities. Despite the many precautions taken by companies around the world to encourage safety, accidents still happen with some frequency. And that means potential liability if your product is involved.

The least you should do is have a chain of command for communicating with customers or the media if something unexpected does happen. Saying and doing the right thing during an emergency or crisis is not just good policy, it’s a crucial step in limiting the damage done to your business.


The lessons of pink slime

Recently when the “pink slime” controversy erupted over reconstituted meat used in extending beef portions, the company that manufactured large amounts of the product went on what appeared to be an offensive to protect the reputation of its product.

They were apparently caught somewhat by surprise. While their representatives did ultimately appear in the media to explain how the product was made, they did not effectively answer the questions the general public desperately wanted to know, which were: “What’s in pink slime - and is it good for you?”

Manufacturers of thinly processed beef did not seem to anticipate the burden of having to defend not just their product, but to swim upstream against suspicions that many other beef products such as hot dogs (“Don’t ask what in them…”) have raised in the past. To win the battle, the pink slime people had to defend their company against suspicions not only about their product, but all reconstituted meat products. They only partially succeeded in that effort, if at all.


Taking the jobs route

Instead what the media focused on in many of the stories were the number of jobs that would be lost if the company were forced to cease operations. That appeared to be an attempt to leverage sympathy from the general public. No one likes to see anyone lose their job over a controversial product. But that strategy, while creative and in touch with the times, did not remove concerns about the pink slime product itself.


Bring on the industry experts

Next, a phalanx of industry experts were trotted out for the media, each positioned to testify about the “safety” of the pink slime product, which uses a chemical process to make the finely threaded meat safe for consumption. Despite the expert testimony, that approach to crisis communications only seemed to raise new customer concerns.


Anticipating the true objections, and how to get help handling them

The true objections to pink slime centered on the fact that just because something is “safe” to eat does not mean it is necessarily good for you.

And that is why thousands if not millions of people began to avoid purchasing products processed together with pink slime. As a result, many grocery store chains have now promised to not purchase and/or sell any meat products that contain the pink slime in question. Such objections to a product can be hard for manufacturers to comprehend. People had eaten pink slime for decades without protest, had they not? Then suddenly the whole world seemed to turn against the product. Trying to anticipate possible objections is often why it is important to go to resources outside your own industry to gain important perspective on how your product may be perceived outside the cloistered world of industry knowledge. Then you can develop more perspective about protecting its reputation.

Was it fair to producers of pink slime that their product was indicted before it was given a fair chance to defend itself? Probably not. But as mentioned, those companies that specialize in making food or chemical products often fight uphill battles because of past catastrophes that have proven to be true risks to the public. People do get sick from eating the wrong things. So you’d better have your ducks in a row if you make something potentially suspicious these days.

Because when the media, social or otherwise, comes calling, it is often what you say first that counts the most.

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