Social Media and Food Safety: What Clicks and What Crashes

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Food safety concerns are everywhere. Social Media is everywhere. When the two get together, it can mean both good news and bad news for industry players. Some tools for success: Learn to manage risks in this environment; accept that transparency is not an option; translate PhD to ADD; and communicate creatively.

Social media can be a great tool to connect with consumers, and influencers, and promote your brands and systems and procedures used to further food safety and quality. But on the other hand, it can also create an avalanche of food safety concerns and negative publicity that can very quickly spin out of control. How can food companies effectively manage social media channels, and use it to their advantage, and how can they respond to crisis in this world? Four industry players shared their perspectives during a session at the recent Food Safety Summit, held in Baltimore. 

Managing risks in current environment

Daniel Webber, Senior Vice President and Group Head at Edelman, digital corporate and crisis group, painted a scenario by wondering what would have been different if the Jack-in-the-Box incident would have happened today: “An employee could have suggested that the meat had not been cooked long enough, or to a high enough temperature. There would have been comments flying back and forth in FaceBook and Twitter, and soon there could have been mass hysteria about the burgers,” he suggested. 

Food companies have to deal with three types of risk in the current environment, explained Webber: Unanticipated or unpredictable risk, which leads to the company being blindsided; episodic risks which are like waves in the food business – incidents than come and go; and endemic or systemic risk – which is those ‘we should have seen coming,’ caused by a lingering product issue, what he described as a ‘Lance Armstrong’ curve. 

To be better prepared, Webber listed the following steps:

  1. Monitor all media to building intelligence (“monitoring is free research”); 
  2. Develop a plan; 
  3. Do scenario planning (if one of your companies is going through such an issue, what would you do); 
  4. Train (to build muscle memory); 
  5. Make friends now (make them speak for you when needed); 
  6. Tell your story; and 
  7. Get others to tell your story. 

But, he warned, “if it’s truly a crisis, you will need lawyers, publicists, and experts who can help you address that, so know when you need a bigger boat.”

Transparency is not an option, but a necessity

Tara Clark, Consumer Affairs Manager – Social Media, at ConAgra Foods, Inc. manages social media perceptions of the company’s brands, several of which have 100,000 + followers. 

Clark listed some of her observations on what triggers social outrage. Personal experiences: if a friend of family member gets affected or sick that is a huge factor, she said. And how the responds to the situation matters. 

“Consumers take the opportunity to challenge you, and ask you to prove it to them that you deserve their loyalty.” She referred to Google University (and Snopes, Wikipedia etc.) that become trusted sources of information, and active bloggers and consumers who become influencers for the market. 

Clark described the situation of Orville Redenbancher popcorn recall: “We thought it would be a big issue on social media and were worried about posting information about it, but instead of getting negative comments and people ganging up against us, people were supporting us, appreciating our honesty and transparency.” 

Her advice to food companies?

  1. Consumers are your brands’ friends & family, so treat them so; 
  2. Have a personal conversation with them; 
  3. Engage, but don’t force education; 
  4. Know who’s influencing your communities; 
  5. Trust your gut and instincts; 
  6. It’s okay to be human in social media; and 
  7. Remember that transparency is not an option; it’s a necessity. 

Translate PhD to ADD

Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, talked about what drives consumer trust. The larger you are as a company, the more you have to prove that you are trustworthy, he described. 

Arnot talked about a study conducted by the Center which looked at two different scenarios and how consumers reacted to companies’ responses to a fictional food outbreak. The leading factor that garnered a good response was a company’s willingness to accept responsibility in a timely manner. “How and when you engage makes all the difference in recovering from social outrage,” he added. 

Summing up, Arnot listed the following takeaways:

  1. Social decision-making process is complex and multidimensional; decisions are not made on facts and rational thought alone; 
  2. Mistrust of institutions has become the social norm and people are questioning the data and motives of experts; 
  3. Tribal communications, relationships, and experiences influence what you believe; 
  4. Communicating shared values makes science more relevant and gives the public permission to believe your information. 
  5. And finally, the public wants information from academics, but not academic information. So you need to translate PhD to ADD. 

When CDC trended above Christmas

Dana Pitts, Associate Director for Communications in CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, started by saying “Information is CDC’s main product. Getting that data to you is enabled by the interaction between scientists and communicators at CDC and social media plays a big role in these communications.” 

“My job is to tame the science that comes out of the various centers within CDC. And communicate it via our 57 twitter profiles, 18 FaceBook profiles, 14 blogs, two LinkedIn profiles, YouTube, Google +; Flickr; Instagram; several mobile and tablet apps, web and text messaging…” she explained. 

Pitts talked about the Centers recently communicating 40 years of Salmonella data in a manner that people can easily find it and understand it. 

She described a successful social media campaign that CDC ran through the holiday break of 2013, in which experts from the CDC, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the International Food Information Council Foundation answered Twitter users’ questions on food safety during the holidays. 

“The conversation, “Don’t toss your cookies’ was a great success. In one hour, there were 731 participants. We had 40 partners, 718 tweets during chat, with a potential reach of 58 million. At one point, we were trending on Twitter, just above Christmas,” Pitts proudly described.

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