Crisis communications in the food business has never been easy. But with the advent of social media, it’s become a lot more complicated

How does bad news about food companies spread?

Anthony LaFauce, vice president of the PNConnect division of PR firm Porter Novelli, sketched out a scenario: A mom in Wichita follows a yoga teacher on Instagram. Most of this teacher’s feed is pictures of yoga poses, tranquil scenes, sayings of self-affirmation, and healthy food.

Then the yoga teacher gets food poisoning at a chain restaurant. She adds an angry post with a hashtag decrying the restaurant and a link to a blog from someone else trashing the restaurant.

Just like that, the mom in Wichita believes the blogger and turns against the chain restaurant, sharing the posts to all her connections across social networks. Whatever message is in the angry blog — true or not — is endorsed as truth. And the chain restaurant is now one step closer to dealing with a full-blown social media communication crisis.

“Those kinds of short channels have tentacles that reach out to people and pull them back to something more substantial,” LaFauce told Food Dive at the Food Safety Summit in Chicago.

While people say they generally don’t trust social media, they do trust their family and friends, according to Michael DeAngelis, Porter Novelli’s nutrition director. Someone like the yoga teacher isn’t considered a stranger on social media — even if the mom has never actually met them in person. The mom in Wichita would see it as a post from a friend.

Crisis communications in the food business has never been easy. But with the advent of social media, it’s become much more difficult.

“There are many more voices, and much more to manage,” DeAngelis told Food Dive.

In a world dominated by tweets, likes and snaps, food companies need more preparation and coordination for crisis messaging, according to LaFauce and DeAngelis. After all, crisis is inevitable — it’s how a company reacts that will ultimately decide its future.

Facebook on smartphone

Prepare for the worst

LaFauce did not mince words in outlining the importance of preparing for a crisis.

“If you don’t handle a crisis well, you will have no credibility going forward,” he said.

Take Tylenol, the drug manufacturer that had some of its tablets contaminated with cyanide in 1982. The company responded by immediately pulling all products off shelves nationwide. The tampering probably could have been traced to specific factories, dates or lots. But by pulling all of the products off the shelves, the company took a strong stance — immediately restoring consumers’ faith in its desire to produce a completely safe product.

To make the best of bad situations, companies need to start preparing for worst-case scenarios well in advance. Just like the U.S. military has a plan in case of a zombie apocalypse, food manufacturers should put together plans to deal with their worst-case scenarios, according to LaFauce.

In 2017, worst-case scenarios are complicated by the internet and social media. Online — where anyone can appear to be an expert in anything and easily say whatever they want — the lines between fact and reality can easily be blurred.

“In crisis management, reality and perception mean a lot — but now perception can be reality,” DeAngelis said.

“In crisis management, reality and perception mean a lot — but now perception can be reality.”

Michael DeAngelis, Nutrition director, Porter Novelli

​LaFauce recommends that companies actually plan out responses to these worst case scenarios — such as a serious foodborne illness caused by the product or even a total product line recall due to intentional contamination. This shouldn’t just be a set of talking points or a plan for who should speak for the company — though both are important.

Companies should actually build pages on their website and write social media posts explaining the problem to concerned consumers, LaFauce said.

The reasons for this are two-fold: First, the social media posts and webpages are ready to be published as soon as the problem occurs — and a company’s speed in responding to a worst-case scenario crisis is vital. But more importantly, statements during situations like these should be vetted and approved by legal counsel before publication, LaFauce said. If the statements are written in advance, they can be cleared in advance. That will make it much easier to publish statements when they are actually needed — especially since crises don’t always happen during normal business hours.

Hands on keyboard

The internet has ears

There are ways to know when there is a crisis looming on social media. If there are negative things happening to a company, like recalls or plant shutdowns, the impending crisis is hard to miss.

But through social media, one post has the power to go viral — and there are ways to see if this is about to happen, LaFauce said. Many tools exist that enable companies to “listen” to conversations on social media. Paid services like Meltwater and Sysomos and free ones like Google Advanced Search allow companies to track online conversations about their products.

To “listen” to online conversations, LaFauce said he often makes a customized query that looks for product names, plus relevant hashtags and trigger words like “gross,” “disgusting” or “sick.” This query can bring up many social media conversations, which are then evaluated to determine if they are passing complaints or part of a conversation — or if they suggest a larger wave of negative posts may be around the corner.

Consumers are often shocked to learn that their online social media conversations are scrutinized by food companies and their PR firms to look for latent negative sentiment, he said. But consumers should know that food companies aren’t the only ones mining their social media content — it’s also commonly used for marketing and advertising.

“What we’re really afraid of is the concept of the pop-up network.”

Anthony LaFauce, Vice president of PNConnect, Porter Novelli

As social networks continue to develop, the ways in which data needs to be mined are growing.

“What we’re really afraid of is the concept of the pop-up network,” LaFauce told Food Dive.

This sort of instantaneous network is often born from a quick and passionate discussion on social media: A picture of a sunrise on Instagram could inspire a deep discussion on breakfast. Someone could enter that discussion and use it to smear a cereal brand that uses GMOs. While the discussion may be forgotten in a few hours, he said, the things said in it were influential and spread a message that is hard to contain or control.

Getting consumers’ attention in the right places

When crisis strikes, consumers don’t necessarily take the time to seek out the most credible sources.

For example: If a brand of bagged salad gets recalled, the consumer may not seek out information or updates from the brand first. Instead, they’re more likely to type a few keywords into Google or do a quick search on Twitter.

The problem with this consumer approach is that it’s harder for companies themselves to make sure their messaging gets heard. Google’s algorithm will bring up different pages. At the top of the search results could be posts from bloggers about the recall that may not be fully true — or a news story reporting the incident’s most unsavory facts.

​LaFauce said there are ways to try to keep a company’s own message top-of-search in times of crisis. Preparing statements and webpages in advance can help. Through search-engine optimization and hashtags, these pages and posts can be put together in a way to increase the likelihood that a Google search will find and rank them highly.

“You want to think long-term on relationships… You build your reputation with them over time.”

Michael DeAngelis, Nutrition director, Porter Novelli

On social media, companies should cultivate influential voices to be their defenders.

“You want to think long-term on relationships,” DeAngelis said. “…You build your reputation with them over time.”

These influential voices usually belong to bloggers or active social media users who already feel positively about a product. Companies often do things to build relationships with them, like bringing them to company HQ or communicating with them one-on-one. Through this work, not only is the brand establishing a solid advance team, but it’s also getting people in place who are more likely to be trusted by ordinary consumers to deny any false rumors on social media.

Companies should be prepared to respond to social media flare ups, according to LaFauce and DeAngelis. The response — as well as what rises to the level of meriting a response — needs to be thought through and planned out. Consumers complaining about a new color on a package may not warrant personal responses from the company’s own branded accounts. But accusations that a company uses its product to poison people might be.

“Social media really does change everything,” DeAngelis said.