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Food Safety News

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Letter From The Editor: PR Advice

Food Safety News entered its seventh month of publishing this past week.  We thought now would be a good time to speak to food industry executives.

This week we learned that just as the nation’s top food safety officials were holding a press conference to provide information regarding a food-contamination investigation in Washington D.C., the company that was the target of the federal government’s actions consciously decided not to deal with the news media.

Executives at Basic Food Flavors reasoned that if they said nothing, the story about Salmonella contamination in the ingredient they make would just go away.  In the week after the press conference, reporters covering food safety at the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post were provided with copies of government reports that said Basic Food Flavors continued to ship product it knew was contaminated.

After about 3,000 media stories, the Nevada company tried to get out word that it did not do anything wrong through an industry-friendly news site, which did a “fair and balanced” job with the report.

Lesson: The ostrich plan never works.  Its feels good for a while, but eventually like a boomerang it comes back around and hits you flat in the head.

We’ve not seen any data, but suspect the food industry is as well represented with both in-house and outside public relations people than most industries.  Given its relationship with consumers and the need for marketing, that probably makes sense.

During the past six months, we’ve come into contact with all sorts of these folks.  Usually, our contact comes during recalls or when someone is working on what the PR folks call “story placement.”

Food recalls done under the watchful eye of either the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) meet some minimum requirements for public information.

But we’ve also seen some food companies going way beyond that, providing 24-hour access to someone in the company who actually knows what is going on, and a real consumer response system.

Lesson: Large or small, make sure your outside PR help knows how to get your company ready for “crisis communication.”  These times can make or break you.

Every food industry executive should occasionally do his or her own googling or binging of his or her own name and company.  There are national and regional sites that profile your company, and your executives.  Everybody knows about Wikipedia, but there are all those other sites like Hoovers and Dex.

Like others, we often use the Internet to find out basic information about a company.   If something is not clear from a company website, and we are not getting any other response, we will use what we can find.

Sometimes what we come up with is in error.  We had one of those experiences that put us on the receiving end of a hostile PR person who was actually working for a Fortune 500 company.   We addressed our mistake, but I could not help but wonder how much that firm was billing its client and yet not keeping basic information on the net up to date and accurate on sites that are probably read hundreds of times more than Food Safety News.

Lesson: Make sure your PR people, inside and out, are doing the small stuff.  It adds up, and you should get something for all those fees you pay.

We have one other little piece of advice for all you PR folks.  Be careful how you identify yourself.  If you say you are John Doe, and “you represent” the Acme Co., some people might assume you are an attorney at law.  We would not want anyone getting into trouble masquerading as a member of the bar.

© Food Safety News