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Responding to a Crisis

09/22/2020

Inevitably problems occur in shell-egg and liquid production complexes that may have consumer and customer-related implications.  Where a brand is involved, degradation of image must be avoided to minimize loss of goodwill and future sales.  In the age of social media and viral videos, an appropriate response to a crisis situation is critical to recovery and stabilization of an enterprise.

 

Within the context of egg production, the most probable crisis situations include:-

  • An egg-borne infection including but not limited to salmonellosis or listeriosis.
  • A welfare-related issue usually involving a clandestine video.
  • Allegations of worker exploitation, harassment, or unhealthful or potentially injurious working conditions or an outbreak of a disease such as COVID-19 among workers.
  • Contamination with a pesticide or chemical toxin.
  • Allegations of illegal action relating to employment of non-documented aliens, collusion over prices, fraud and deceptive labeling, contravention of the Food Safety Modernization Act or any intervention by a Federal agency.
  • Precipitation of an environmental incident including discharge of pollutants or improper use of pesticides.

 

Given that the range of possible situations is fairly predictable, appropriate planning, installation of equipment, maintenance of facilities and conformity to standard operating procedures are required to prevent situations, thereby avoiding the need to respond to a crisis. 

 

Management should encourage communication among responsible levels within the enterprise so that minor issues can be identified and resolved before the emergence of a larger and publicized crisis.  It is always advisable to rectify a small problem then to either ignore or countenance a situation that can ultimately bring down an enterprise.  This was the case with the Blue Bell Creamery that detected Listeria in their ice-cream plants but elected not to take appropriate action other than ignoring and even falsifying laboratory records until a trace-back from cases of listeriosis resulted in complete closure of all facilities for an extended period. Fines totaling $17 million were imposed in this case.

 

Predicting possible adverse advents allows management to not only implement preventive measures, but the exercise of planning for a crisis also stimulates the development of appropriate response strategies.  This involves teamwork among management and may include contributions from public relations specialists who in addition to providing advice have valuable contacts in the mainstream media.  It should be possible to develop a series of appropriate brief statements and pre-prepared videos in response to predictable events. Attempting to draft responses under pressure and deadlines will inevitably lead to subsequent corrections, retractions and confusion that will elicit further questions and will detract from the core message projected by the company.

 

The following general principles should guide a crisis response:-

  • A single spokesperson should be designated, preferably at executive officer-level who can speak with authority and favorably represent the image of the company in audio and visual media interviews.
  • If any subordinates to the spokesperson within the company comment on the crisis, information should not conflict with the message of the principal representative.
  • The initial message should clearly indicate the nature of the problem, causation and above all, what action has been or will be implemented to resolve the issue
  • Bold and immediate action is necessary to avoid placing the company on the defensive. This may involve a voluntary recall of product before mandated by a Federal agency.  Frequently legal advisors suggest a "no-comment" response.  Although justified by legal prudence, a no-comment invites suspicion and in many cases, may be viewed as an admission of responsibility from the perspective of public relations.
  • All possible media channels should be used to project the required message. This presumes that the designated spokesperson is sufficiently trained and comfortable with media interviews and questioning.  Appropriate messages can be posted on a company website, but direct interaction with individuals using social media should be avoided.  Statements should be as brief as possible but adequate to convey facts as they are known at the time.  Messages should display empathy and concern for those affected.
  • It is generally inadvisable to hide behind producer associations and allow bland statements to speak for an individual company

 

Generally a major crisis, even if resolved in the short term, will require remediation of image.  In addition, costs to resolve a crisis include recalls, lost production, defending lawsuits, settlements, operational disruption and fines imposed by Federal or state agencies.  From a review of recent crisis situations affecting U.S. and E.U. companies, it is apparent that prevention and preemptive planning is far less expensive then a belated and uncoordinated response.