MF Communication is a Belfast PR & Marketing Communications agency that provides corporate and brand PR and Marketing solutions to clients in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Services range from proactive marketing, PR and stakeholder relations to crisis communications and corporate reputation management.

A Tale of Three Agri Food Scares - Crisis Communications

On the third anniversary of the PR and supply chain agri-food crisis that has now become known as the 'horsemeat scandal', I was interviewed by Richard Halleron, of Farming Life on how today, more than ever, agri-food businesses should be prepared for a crisis in the ‘always on’ age. Here's the feature that was published as a result...

“In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, consumers want to know how their food is made and who is making it. Food is a highly emotional topic. So supply chain integrity issues have news appeal. Add to this the fact that anyone with a smartphone can have an impact on your hard-earned reputation and there is the potential for a food scare to start and spread at unprecedented rates. The last thing our farming sector needs right now is a food scare.”

“When you consider the difference in how news spreads today versus 10-15 years ago, businesses without the crisis communications capability in place to deal with a major issue are at real risk.

Take for example when traces of Nitrofuran was found in locally produced organic chicken in 2004. That story played out regionally over about 3-4 days. Fast forward to 2008 when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland ordered the recall and destruction of pork products due to the presence of dioxins and PCBs and there is a big change in the impact of that announcement. Within hours, local newspapers had run the story. 12 hours later, the international media was carrying the story and within 36 hours there were over 1,700 newspaper editorials on the crisis globally.”

“Now compare this to the more recent ‘horsemeat scandal.’ Within three days the news that equine DNA in certain beef burgers had generated over 3,000 news stories. Three years on today and the ‘horsemeat scandal’ search term generates nearly 1 million page results on Google alone. Yet of the three examples, horsemeat was the only one which did not concern contamination by a substance that presented a risk to public health.”

“Online is the engine that has fuelled this increased speed of reporting and the news cycle is now 24/7 real time. In the past, radio, TV & the tabloid press were in a race break a story first. Now digital interactions mean that everything can be public in an instant; can spread like wild fire and be amplified across multiple platforms.”

“Businesses wanting to safeguard their reputations in this ‘always-on’ age need to be aware that initial news could be inaccurate and that not everyone who publishes online fact-checks. Whilst traditional news media still has the greatest impact on an organisation’s credibility and reputation in the longer term, ‘citizen journalists’ have the power to influence friends, families, employees and whole communities creating a perception of the problem that could be disproportionate to the reality.”

“The PR implications are that any business within the agri-food industry could get caught in a food scare and that it could become international within a day, whether the incident directly involves your business or not. Developing crisis communications capability ahead of a potential crisis is key to having greater control. Having the groundwork in place gives the best chance of withstanding organisational and personal stress. This is particularly so for smaller businesses and retail outlets who may not have the in-house communications expertise to react rapidly to negative incidents that reach the media's attention.”

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