These should be heady days at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).


The nation’s $1+ trillion deficit is not much of a speed bump for the $288 billion potpourri we call the 2012 Farm Bill, replenishing the supply of goodies USDA gives out to those who qualify in the 400 pages of legislation.  

But crisis management is giving USDA the fits.  First, USDA did not quickly enough explain and defend its decision-making regarding finely textured lean beef, now known the world over as “pink slime.”   By the time USDA got into the arena, it looked too much like a marketing mission.

Since on or about April 18, another crisis management challenge has confronted USDA and they’ve hit a couple bumps on this one, too. That of course was the time when a “downer” dairy cow in Tulare County, CA was put out of its misery and the rendering truck was called.

When the carcass got to the transfer station in Hanford, CA, the rendering company took a brain sample, which was sent off first the University of California, Davis and then to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa.   

UC Davis was not sure on April 19, but the NVSL found the sample positive for atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) on or after April 20.

The public announcement would not come until mid-afternoon on Tuesday, April 24 and from that moment on mad cow disease — as BSE is nicknamed — was back in the news for the first time in six years.

Now let me step in here.  Not only did this timing get our attention, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulated derivatives, wants to know more about when this came down, too.

It’s probably going to come down to when did NVSL know the 10-year, 7 month old dairy cow was positive for BSE, and when did the lab tell John Clifford, USDA’s chief veterinarian?  Then it’s a matter of whether USDA kept the secret while moving quickly to make it publicly known to all.

Before the announcement, cattle markets moved south on mad cow rumors that could have come out of California, the Iowa lab, USDA’s mammoth bureaucracy, or parts unknown.

In this incident, the media keeps finding California sources to fill in details USDA is leaving out. Clifford kept more of a lid on the 2006 BSE case in Texas. That strategy is clearly not working this time.

But putting aside the whole issue of how “material information” that might roil a market was handled, USDA fell down in some other ways too. Ever since its public relations team brought Johnson & Johnson through the Tylenol recall almost with a scratch, crisis communications has become its own discipline with some very specific rules.

One of the best lines I’ve heard on the subject come from a crisis communications coach for top CEOs, who said: “You don’t want to be a bystander in your own crisis.”  Much of this advice amounts to making decision-makiers understand that in a crisis moving fast with credible spokesmen in all the right venues is critical.  If it’s not done, other messages moves into the vacuum.

That said, we outsiders do not know who is calling the communications shots at USDA.  Is the best advice of the agency communications professionals followed by top executives or do the “suits” do what they want.  Not knowing that does not erase the mistakes.

For example:

– Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety, should have been front and center.   USDA’s main message is that beef and dairy are safe.  Instead it let its bureaucratic organization with BSE falling under the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) dictate its media strategy.  Folks are ready to believe a doctor on TV telling them their food is safe; a vet is a stretch.

– Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, should have been sent to Hanford, CA to appear from the scene on national network TV and on local California shows by early Wednesday morning.  Vilsack examining the diseased cow’s carcass would have been good TV, and showed he’s not afraid and we needn’t be.

– As USDA’s chief veterinarian and top BSE expert, Clifford was the face of the agency for this round of mad cow.   Putting aside whether that was a mistake, it would have helped Clifford to get him out of his business suit and allow him to appear as viewers expect when they see a vet, whether it be a white lab coat or like their country veterinarian.

 He a Kentucky native,  who earned his DVM at the University of Missouri.  He’s been with USDA since 1985, managing the BSE issue since day one. Instead of putting him in a venue where he’d be comfortable, USDA has made him a “suit” speaking before the flags. Clifford does not look comfortable.

In the end, USDA should be grateful for the industry and consumer groups who jumped into help it out. Outside groups moved into space left vacant by USDA’s slow-moving media show.

For example, Dr. Richard Raymond, the former under secretary for food safety, penned a 11-fact list that petty well put the BSE issue to bed.   The only thing he did not do was gift wrap it and leave it at USDA’s communications shop.

Courtney Rowe, USDA press secretary, late in the week put out a memo to the media crying about “misleading articles.”  I think she would have been better off considering it spilt milk. I am not saying I did not too see and hear things that made me cringe as stuff moved in to fill the space.  

For example, a TV network used the word “epidemic” and a news website completely twisted some research to speculate about “airborne” transmission.  I am sure there were plenty of others.

In crisis communications, however, you expected to knock down rumors and deal with misinformation. You measure success on whether you’ve used your best resources to dominate the message delivery and keep the public’s trust.

USDA still needs to blow the all-clear signal after they’ve finished testing cows in the Central Valley and the epidemiological report will follow in weeks or months.  But I am going to be surprised if this BSE incident has much in the way of “legs.”

But if I were Tom Vilsack, I’d get some work going  now on a plan for crisis management when the nation’s fifth mad cow is discovered at some time in the future.  Better to be ready than to just be mad.