Sue Reninger is managing partner and challenger food brand strategist for RMD Advertising, an integrated public relations, social media, digital, brand strategy and crisis management agency in Columbus, Ohio.
At a time when consumer awareness has peaked and transparency remains critical, the food industry has worked to reestablish the role and definition of food safety. Included in the cost of doing business today is a food safety communications plan that ultimately rises above industry standards. Companies must not only employ a strategically sound plan for crisis management but also whip-smart crisis communication and protocol.
Defining a food crisis
A food crisis can range from a disgruntled consumer expressing their dislike for your brand on social media to a complete product recall – or worse. There’s no situation too small in can be dismissed. With a vigilant team behind a food brand, consumers should feel: (a) heard, (b) taken care of, and (c) respected. A brand strategist will view every opportunity – whether a minor crisis or a major one – to build their relationship with shoppers, distributors, manufacturers, or anyone else who plays a part in getting a food brand in the hands of consumers.
The weight of food crisis management
A series of high-profile food crises have caused a growing awareness of particularly stubborn pathogens among all consumer groups. Both food manufacturing teams and their marketing counterparts have been charged with the daunting task of exemplifying excellence in food safety by incorporating industry best practices, particularly by bolstering their crisis management plans.
By fine-tuning a food crisis strategy, brands can ensure they continue to serve the organization well and protect their public profile while helping to instill trust between the brand and its consumers.
An ultra-strategic game plan is the difference between a well-prepared brand and one playing catch-up when a crisis strikes:
1. Establish a crisis management plan now.
The best time to plan for a crisis is when you’re not in the middle of one. Invariably, planning for a crisis before one emerges allows you to approach each potential situation with a level head and allows you to gain perspective that may not be available during turbulent times.
Give yourself space to breathe and think critically without the time-sensitive pressures a food crisis exposes you to. During this time, consider everything from whom to contact in times of need, when and how to do so, and, most importantly, what to communicate. Emotion has no place in times of crisis. Management plans need to include ways for the team to continue to execute while also continuing to care for the brand in a calm and methodical way.
2. Identify a crisis management team.
In establishing a crisis management plan, identify who needs to be in your inner circle when a food crisis hits. An intimate group of team members should be privy to your strategy while also playing an integral role in fine-tuning your messaging. This inner circle needs to include your c-suite, head of quality control or manufacturing, HR, legal staff and marketing head. Within this inner circle, your marketing or agency partner should also be included, if they have expertise in food crisis management — and, hopefully, they do.
This high-level team should help develop skeleton crisis messaging that, if the time comes, can be supplemented and used to jumpstart final messaging. In the heat of a crisis, allow this established team to simply execute the plan and communicate what has already been vetted and aligns with the brand’s standards.
3. Finely tune the messaging to minimize unwarranted news and unsavory word of mouth.
During a crisis, identify who on your team is public-facing. From receptionists to the CEO, a crisis management plan must also outline messaging that can be shared if those outside your specified crisis management team are approached by unannounced consumers or media.
All touch points need to be considered and anticipated. Because there is no such thing as "off the record," messaging must be carefully crafted. Oftentimes, if the media want a story and can’t get it, they’ll find it in someone else, and that someone will likely not deliver the message, sentiments and tone you would like if they are not guided by strategic crisis communication. This messaging should give all public-facing touch points a concise way to state just the facts.
4. Open a dialogue with others in your industry.
Become a resource. Honor your food safety and industry knowledge. When you do, fellow category leaders — as well as those beyond your own category — will follow. With a goal to achieve an SQF Certification, for instance, or simply tighten up your current food safety practices and a protocol, opening up a dialogue with other professionals is a key way to adapt to your present challenges while positioning yourself as a force within the category. By doing so, your organization can establish a voice and garner profound respect.
5. Above all, strengthen your support team.
A deep knowledge of the industry and a solid track record in times of crisis can distinguish one advertising agency or PR partner from another. In the sometimes-volatile food industry, your agency partner should realize that food has the potential to either nourish us or serve as a toxin. Their work should prepare your brand and protect it accordingly.
When the ever-changing food industry inevitably shifts, client food brands require a team of smart brand marketers and reputation management specialists behind them all the way — before, during and after a crisis.
It’s not over ‘til it’s over: The defining moments after a food crisis
Too often, brands call a crisis over after the initial heat of the event has cooled off. Until the situation is completely resolved, maintain a keen eye on social media, track the news media and use online search engines to find conversations surrounding your brand. Your knowledge of the situation should be all-encompassing and is paramount to controlling the story.
Think about proactive ways to rebuild trust now and make deposits in the good will bank account. Consumers should be able to see that the lessons learned from the crisis are being acknowledged and ultimately used to better the organization. Apply these not just to your communications plan but to each part of your food manufacturing and operations as well.