It was another good year for Northern Ireland's agri-food companies. 'Great Taste' awards and restaurant accolades pile up. But just over two years on from the horsemeat scandal, consumer and media scrutiny on food safety and food provenance remains at an all time high. This was demonstrated once again last Christmas by the national broadcast coverage for the FSA's study into Campylobacter on fresh chickens. The first-time 'naming and shaming' of well-known retailers in an attempt to improve standards generated sensational headlines for the media and some undesirable PR exposure for certain retailers. This can be what sticks in the consumer's mind and lead to misperceptions or, worse still, 'food scares'.
Combine that level of scrutiny with the viral power of social media, when anyone with a smartphone can have an impact your reputation, and you have the conditions for a 'perfect storm' in the food sector. The Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffet, once said, "It takes years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." Never has this been more evident than in the digital age:• Everything is public'There is no such thing as a regional crisis as no matter where the crisis strikes today it can be written about, shared and discussed or even emerge online.'• Today’s news cycle is 24/7'With today’s news cycle being 24/7 real-time, a business doesn’t have time on its side to respond with a statement. But this also presents an opportunity to become the lead narrator in the crisis'• Not everyone fact checks'The rush for immediacy and to be the first to report on a story, and the fact that the news cycle is no longer solely comprised of journalists and reporters who work by the journalism code of ethics, but is also made up of citizen journalists, bloggers and the general public, means that facts don’t always get checked before they’re published (and potentially go viral).' • Everything has viral potential'If the crisis is newsworthy, relatable with emotional impact there is a good chance of it going viral. If images and/or videos are involved, than chances of experiencing a viral crisis heighten.' • Every employee can be a spokesperson for your organisationSome organisations have 'experienced this the hard way' because employees can shape perception with their words and stories – and 'perception' is everything when it comes to an organisation’s reputation'. [*source:agnesday.com/todays-crisis-realities/]
These technological advances in communications and the intensively emotive issue of the food are combining to put food producers and retailers at serious reputational risk. Furthermore, if growth forecasts for our agri-food sector are right, and we continue to see more start-ups as well as established businesses entering rapid phases of expansion, risk-management strategies need to play catch-up by incorporating the capability to respond rapidly to any negative incidents, crisis or issues that reach the media's attention.
Developing crisis communication capability ahead of a potential crisis enables the business to stay in control during a major incident. Preparing the groundwork in advance gives the best chance of withstanding the organisational and personal stress and a way through the difficulty. The implications of not having your house in order ahead of a crisis range from:
• Loss of sales & brand equity• Major distraction from core business• Organisational and personal stress• Corporate reputation damage• Employee morale & retention issues
Preparedness is therefore the key. So developing a rapid response capability should be a priority for any growing agri-food business wanting to ensure their hard-earned corporate or brand reputation is protected in times of trouble. In other words, "by the time you hear the thunder it is too late to build the ark."