CASE STUDY # 1 FROM ANDREW BENSON

October 3, 2014

International Food Information Council

When “Lean Finely Textured Beef” is portrayed as “Pink Slime”

Evocative media coverage gives a long-standing, USDA-approved meat- stripping process a bad name: elevates public concern and causes major economic disruption despite cost advantages and a well-established record of safety in use.
 

1. Introduction and overview of case

Business as usual came to a sudden halt for Beef Products Incorporated (BPI) on March 7, 2012. On that evening, Diane Sawyer, America’s ABC News anchor, first introduced a news report “revealing” that much of the ground beef sold in the United States was “diluted” with Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB). Retailers had included LFTB in ground hamburger routinely for decades. The Kansas Department of Agriculture (2012) explains, “LFTB has at least a twenty year history of being used successfully and safely in beef products in this country” (p. 2). How could a story about a product with a safe track record that was approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and distributed broadly throughout the country be derailed by a single news story? The answer lies in the evocative portrayal of LFTB by ABC News. The story was visually shocking and saddled LFTB with the unflattering or disgusting epithet, “pink slime.” News coverage of this nature is well characterized by exemplification theory. Exemplification theory “focuses on assessments of risks to safety and health, as well as on contingent apprehensions that motivate risk avoidance and related protective behavior” (Zillmann, 2006, p. S221). Stories like that provided by ABC News about LFTB serves as exemplars. As we discuss in this case study, stories that reach the level of exemplification have a profound impact on public opinion.

In this case study, we detail the LFTB story, its widespread influence, and the resulting public outrage. To do so, we provide an overview of the case, outline some key aspects of exemplification and the related difficulty experienced by organizations with low public visibility, analyze the BPI response, and conclude with a discussion of implications for risk communicators.
 

1.1 Nature of hazard

In reality there was no new hazard to the consumer, no increase in risk to food safety. The process had been used for many years, was USDA approved, and perhaps even enhanced food safety by using ammonia to slightly increase the meat’s Ph level, reducing the potential incidence of pathogens and microbial contamination. However, the very negative portrayal of the process by US media, using graphic images and highly evocative terminology, very negatively impacted public perceptions. The image of the product, (which could conceivably have been described as pink meat mousse), was deliberately “slimed” by the media and the public responded with distaste and elevated concern.

While the ammonia process was viewed as a safety enhancement by the manufacturer, the use of such a chemical on a meat or food product was misrepresented as creating greater risk, and was perceived as such by the public.  

Throughout the “pink slime” controversy, there was actually no increased risk and no known risk to consumers.
 

Who/ what/how is affected

The perception of the desirability and suitability of the LFTB process by the American public was deeply and negatively impacted. Ground beef in hamburger patties is consumed by almost the entire population of the USA on occasion, vegetarians and certain religious affiliations apart. The negative portrayal drastically and very quickly reduced consumer demand, with devastating financial impact on the principal company involved.

1.2 Historical background and other contexts ( e.g. economic, political, legal)

LFTB is produced by capturing the remaining meat from stripped beef carcasses. The process involves dissolving the residual meat to a liquid from, separating any fat and connective tissue or cartilage, and then reconstituting the meat as filler for use in meat products like hamburger. The finished product is first exposed to a low dose of ammonia, within established food safety standards, to reduce the potential incidence of pathogens such as E coli 0157:H7. USDA requires LFTB to “contain all the same kinds of amino acids (building blocks for proteins) one would find in a strip steak, filet, round roast or conventional ground beef” making it nutritionally equal to “whole muscle cuts” of beef (Kansas Department of Agriculture, 2012, p. 2).

The ABC News story took exception to LFTB on three levels. First, the report characterized the use of LFTB as economic fraud. Second, the safety of LFTB was questioned. Third, the reporter indicated that the approval process for LFTB might have been tainted by collusion between USDA and the industry. The reporter in the story narrated the following passage as video of unappealing cuts of meat in processing plants were juxtaposed with video of packaged hamburger awaiting purchase in grocery stores:

70% of the ground beef we buy at the supermarket contains something he calls pink slime, beef trimmings that were once used only in pet food and cooking oil, now sprayed with ammonia to make them safe to eat and then added to most ground beef as a cheaper filler.

The story progressed to an animated graphic explaining how the meat is collected, treated with ammonia, liquefied, pressed into brick form, and distributed to grocery stores. The reporter supported his claim that the process is economic fraud by stating, that LFTB “doesn’t have to appear on the label because, over objections from its own scientists, USDA officials with links to the beef industry labeled pink slime meat.”

The story concluded by questioning the ethics of former USDA undersecretary, JoAnn Smith. Smith is said to have made the decision that LFTB was not required to appear on the label of beef products. A former USDA employee was shown quoting Smith as saying, “the undersecretary said it’s pink, therefore it’s meat.” The primary concern with Smith is her relationship with Beef Products Incorporated (BPI), a major producer of LFTB. The reporter reveals “when Smith stepped down from the USDA, BPI’s principal supplier appointed her to the board of directors where she made at least $1.2 million over 17 years.” The story ended with a Diane Sawyer pledging that ABC News would continue its investigative reporting on the controversy.

The ABC news story created a surge of media coverage focusing on the use of LFTB. All major television networks and television news networks broadcast stories using the phrase “pink slime.” The topic was also widely discussed in the print media and on Internet blogs. Almost immediately, the coverage created tremendous public outrage. This outrage resulted in variety of policy changes. Within a month of the story first appearing on ABC News, the following impacts were noted:

  • USDA announced that, due to consumer demand, it would allow school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program to choose whether or not to buy ground beef that includes LFTB for the next school year
  • Safeway, SuperValu, Food Lion, Kroger and other grocery retail chains announced they would no longer sell ground beef that includes LFTB
  • As a result of falling demand, BPI suspended production at three of its four processing plants, laying off 650 employees.
  • The cost of ground beef increased, as did sales of ground beef with higher fat content.
  • Economists estimated that the LFTB industry lost over $500 million in revenue.
  • USDA forecast increased beef imports from countries such as Australia and New Zealand to meet reduced availability of ground beef in the USA. (Greene, 2012)
     

1.3 Levels of risk and level of exposure

The actual level of risk was unchanged. The sudden exposure of startling and disturbing images of the process spread through all major media to a very large, though unquantified percentage of the American public.
 

1.4 Ability to control the risk

The actual level of public health impact was non-existent, except for the fact that the public lost a significant source of safe and inexpensive protein.

The impact on public perception was widespread, and almost universally negative. The public reacted with emotion and almost universal distaste to the images they had seen and the way that the media had described the process. Their distaste was by no means placated by the rational response and the objective yet impersonal messages used to defend the process by describing its many benefits to the manufacturer and the food supply.

BPI faced two major challenges in responding to the “pink slime” controversy. First, BPI is a supplier to other organizations rather than interacting directly the public. Thus, BPI had little or no public visibility or reputation to draw upon when the controversy struck. Second, the ABC News story exemplified LFTB, taking the process and product largely out of context. These challenges are not unique to this case or to this company. They could plague any company or industry with low public visibility whose product or service is exemplified in the media. In this section, we offer further detail on the challenges of exemplification and low visibility.

As a supplier, BPI had little or no direct communication with consumers prior to the “pink slime” controversy. When facing a crisis, an organization’s prior reputation influences the public’s reaction (Coombs, 2012). If the past reputation is favorable, the organization can emphasize its prior successes and service in its crisis response. If the organization’s reputation is negative, it has a more difficult time winning the public’s support. If an organization is “hidden” or largely out of the public’s view before a crisis, the organization faces the potential of being defined by the crisis event in the public’s eyes (Scott, 2013a). Organizations such as suppliers typically focus on their reputation with clients rather than the general public. When they are drawn into a crisis, they receive “unwanted attention” (Scott, 2013b, p. 553).

BPI fits Scott’s (2013a) description of a hidden organization. The company was seen as credible within its industry, but the public had little knowledge of either BPI or LFTB prior to the onslaught of media coverage initiated by the ABC News story. When they were forced to engage in risk crisis communication based on the controversy, they had no public reputation to address. Instead, the company and its product were largely defined by the crisis.

1.5 Level of communication required: level public health impact/level public interest

Exemplars are etched into the minds of observers because they are “visually vivid and emotionally strong” (Aust & Zillmann, 1996, p. 788). Powerful visual images or “any combination of image and text” can create exemplars (Zillmann, 2006, p. S224). Past research has shown that exemplars have an impact on how people perceive risk. Often, those who view television stories that include exemplars overestimate the risk associated with the exemplar (Westerman, Spence, & Lackland, 2009). This impact is heightened if they see and hear the exemplar frequently. Exemplars increase in influence about risk issues when they are seen recently and frequently (Zillmann, 2006, p. S223). Simply put, exemplars can distort public perception of a risk.

To avoid distortion, Zillmann, Gibson, Sundar, and Perkins (1996) provide two recommendations both journalists and risk communicators:

  • First, news writers must be made aware of the implications of exemplification, especially of those concerning selective, distorting exemplification. Cognizance of glaringly inappropriate exemplification should correct the practice of highly selective exemplification to some degree.
     
  • Second, news writers must be apprised of the fact that pallid general information is likely to fail as a corrective for distorting exemplification. (Zillmann, Gibson, Sundar, & Perkins, 1996, p. 441)

Used irresponsibly, exemplars in the news media have the potential to distort public perception of any risk issue.

ABC News created an exempla by its portray of LFTB as “pink slime.” The term is graphic and the image of liquefied meat being blended with ground beef is disturbing. The phrase “pink slime” is easily remembered and the visual image is compelling. The wave of media coverage using this term and related images provided the level of repetition needed for an exemplar to take hold in public sentiment and create outrage. Responding to an issue that has taken on exemplar status is extremely challenging. Risk communicators are often asked to overcome a vivid image with “pallid, general information” (Zillmann et al., 1996, p. 441).

Ultimately, the exemplar that the ABC News story instigated crippled the LFTB industry, particularly BPI. Zillmann et al. (1996) warn the media that using exemplars can cause lasting damage. Removing LFTB from grocery store shelves resulted in higher cost and higher fat content for the ground beef consumers purchase. Moreover, the drop in LFTB production put hundreds of employees out of work and increased the amount of beef imported to the United States. Journalists should consider the potential impact of exemplification and the difficulty in countering exemplars before introducing them to the public.
 

1.6 Emergency vs. non-emergency situation

In terms of food safety and risk to the consumer, this was a non-emergency situation. In terms of risk to the manufacturer’s reputation and ability to operate, the risk could not have been more acute.
 

1.7 Timelines of event

It took only a month to devastate this market sector.

1.8 Identification of uncertainties where they exist (e.g. who is affected)

The most significant uncertainty in this whole scenario was the enormous gap in understanding between the media, the meat industry, and the needs and sensitivities of the consumer. Consumer sensitivities were disproportionately aroused and ignited by the very negative portrayal in the media. The industry sought to extinguish the fire of a level of consumer distaste that bordered on anger with a rational, one-way dialogue.

 

2. Evidence and application of the principles and best practices for RC in the case

2.1 Openness

The industry responded with openness. All responses provided were open about the type of meat included in LFTB, how it is removed, its exposure to ammonia, and its inclusion in ground beef. The industry even called or voluntary labeling after the crisis had peaked.

2.2 Transparency

LFTB has a thirty-year history of being safely included in ground beef. Hence, accusations about its lack of safety are questionable. The transparency problem occurred in that most consumers were not aware that this product was included in the lean ground beef they purchase. This lack of previous awareness created an uphill challenge for BPI as the company initiated its response to the crisis.

2.3 Present risk message with honesty

  The industry presented their message with honesty, however, the fact that ABC News had accused the USDA of being biased in its approval of LFTB diminished the capacity of the regulatory agency to serve as a credible and objective voice for outraged consumers.

2.4 Credibility of information sources

As the industry was portrayed by the media and perceived by the public as the source of the problem, and benefiting commercially from a food production process that appeared distasteful, the public could be expected to view the industry’s perspective as being, at the least, tinged with some level of self-interest.

2.5 Responsiveness/timeliness

While the timeliness, openness and fairness with which the industry presented its information and sought to respond to each of the specific points of criticism portrayed in the media would not in itself make them appear less credible, a more important point is that the industry sought more to defend and explain its processes, rather than responding directly and empathetically to the very high level of public concern and displeasure.

2.6 Channels and tools

Although BPI’s message came later in the crisis than is desirable, the content was presented in a manner that avoided what Zillmann et al. (1996) characterize as pallid. The analogies and comparisons effectively create visual images with the potential to quiet concerns about “pink slime.” The videos, added to the company’s Web site several months after the ABC News story peaked in public attention, are both entertaining and comprehendible. As mentioned above, this information would have been more effective during the crisis if it had been shared in this format before the crisis. Also, the information is limited to those who have access to a computer and are willing to spend time of BPI’s Web site. Clearly, a notable portion of consumers cannot or will not access these messages. In short, the communication channels and tools used by the industry would have been very appropriate in responding to a “low risk/low outrage” communication scenario. They were less effective in addressing a low risk/high outrage communication scenario.

2.7 Message Development

BPI’s response to the “pink slime” controversy is summarized on its Web site entitled, “The Facts of Lean Finely Textured Beef.” This Web site provides a comprehensive summary of statements made by BPI throughout the controversy. The Web site, which is still available at http://www.beefisbeef.com/faq-3/, makes BPI’s approximately 1,500-word rebuttal readily accessible by a broad public audience.

As mentioned above, BPI had no prior reputation with consumers, nor was there a public understanding of LFTB prior to the ABC News story. As a result, BPI was forced to reframe or redefine the controversy from its perspective. In doing so, BPI offered a rebuttal designed to refute each of the worrisome claims made in the ABC News article.

Rather than serving scraps of undesirable beef to an unwary public, BPI insisted their procedures apply “state of the art food processing equipment allowed the removal of the fat from the beef trimmings.” BPI explains that nothing other than beef is ever included in the process. The company explains further that the LFTB technology allows for the removal of fat resulting in lean, pure beef that can be blended with other products. In essence, BPI’s leading argument is that LFTB is pure beef that is harvested using a highly efficient technology.

BPI also responds to the outrage created by the revelation in the ABC News story that LFTB is treated with ammonia. To address this controversy, BPI begins by explaining that ammonia occurs naturally in the food supply. They provide a picture of a cheeseburger including the amount of ammonium hydroxide in the bun, bacon, condiments, cheese, and beef. They also provide a graphic showing that ammonium hydroxide is found in fruits, vegetables, other meats, and dairy products. BPI then argues that their process involves “slightly increasing the level of Ammonia already present in beef in order to elevate its pH to combat deadly pathogens such as E coli O157:H7.” In doing so, the company contends that the small dose of ammonia used in the processing of LFTB to kill dangerous bacteria is no more dangerous that the food consumers eat on a daily basis.

BPI argues further that salvaging beef in the final stages of meat production represents a responsible use of the food supply. BPI argues that failing to harvest this meat, which cannot be collected efficiently in any other way, represents waste. They further emphasize that a growing world population will need such technology to feed itself. BPI insists that eliminating LFTB is “like throwing away 5,700 cattle a day.”

In addition to the challenge of being defined in consumer’s eyes by the “pink slime” controversy, BPI was also challenged by the fact that the phrase and visual image of “pink slime” had reached exemplification status. Zillmann et al. (1996) warn that pallid explanation cannot overcome the vivid imagery of an exemplar. Thus, risk and crisis communicators are challenged to create messages that are compelling for the audience. Strategies such as visible imagery, provocative comparisons, and memorable phrases have some potential to counter exemplars.

BPI’s visual representation on its Web site of a common cheeseburger and the many sources of ammonia is an example of a compelling rather than pallid explanation. Similarly, the analogy of discarding thousands of cattle everyday without LFTB technology creates a compelling mental image. Thus, these communication strategies used by BPI are more provocative than a simple scientific explanation.

The BPI Web site is also supplemented by a series of YouTube videos. For example, one BPI video provides a brief explanation of ammonia in the food supply. The video incorporates colorful animation, interviews with BPI scientists and technicians whose comments are brief and clearly stated, and the examples provided are easy to grasp. This video converts a complex scientific explanation into an entertaining and informative format. Another video extends BPI’s argument that technology such as LFTB is essential for feeding the world’s growing population. The video explains how rapidly the world’s population is growing and how, along with growth, there is an increasing appetite in countries such as China for beef products. The video then introduces LFTB as a means for addressing this need. Brief statements are included by professors from Iowa State, Penn State, and Texas A&M attesting to need for and safety of LFTB. A former Congressional representative, a USDA official, and former president of the National Consumer League also endorsed LFTB technology and BPI’s food safety initiatives in the video. The video is produced on a level that is comparable to what is seen on national television news. Finally, BPI’s Web site includes two videos created by the American Meat Institute. These videos clarify the LFTB process and the use of ammonia.

Clearly, BPI has made a concerted effort to clarify the means through which LFTB is created, why it is necessary, and the potential benefits of the product. They have done so in a manner that is entertaining and compelling.

2.8 Acknowledge uncertainties where these exist, and explain what is being done to reduce these

As mentioned above the LFTB process had a thirty-year history of use. No health problems were reported. Thus, BPI had little uncertainty regarding the safety of the product. This is case is unusual in that much of the uncertainty came from the fact that consumers had not fully comprehended that their ground hamburger contained LFTB. The fact that BPI, in cooperation with the USDA, announced a commitment to labeling beef products containing LFTB represents a reduction in uncertainty for consumers.

2.9 Communication about risk mitigation measures

The messages developed by BPI, late in the crisis, transcend the “pink slime” controversy. As is mentioned above, BPI includes a video on its Web site proclaiming the advancements in product testing and the complete safety of LFTB. Credible, independent subject matter experts from across the United States extol the company for its advancements in food safety. Thus, BPI never acknowledges a risk in the LFTB process. Instead, the company establishes itself as an industry-wide leader in food safety initiatives.

2.10 Risk perceptions identified in target population?

BPI had difficulty in tailoring a message for a particular at-risk audience. The media coverage of the “pink-slime” controversy was so pervasive, that literally all consumers of ground in the United States were potentially impacted. Thus, their best opportunity was to communicate broadly at the outset of the crisis. Ultimately, however, those individuals who could not afford to purchase lean ground beef without LFTB were left to consume fattier and less nutritional grades of ground beef.

2.11 Design risk messages to be culturally sensitive/ culture values/ social sensitivity

The BPI response did little to acknowledge cultural differences. In fact the initial response was almost entirely scientific. Given the wide range of science and health literacy in the United States, these messages were likely beyond the comprehension of a notable portion of the population (Parker  & Gazmararian,2003). BPI’s decision to emphasize the threat of world hunger, however, did reflect on cultural values. The company positioned itself as avoiding the level waste that is becoming intolerable in a world that must feed a rising population.

2.12 Acknowledge diverse levels of risk tolerance/knowing your audience

The fact that the LFTB process includes ammonia created a barrier for BPI. Slovic (2000) explains, “nuclear and chemical technologies (except for medicines) have been stigmatized by being perceived as entailing unnaturally greater risks” (p. 390). Thus, some members of the population amplify the risk of a product in their minds if they believe it exposes them to a chemical—of any kind, at any exposure level. BPI dismissed ammonia as a natural component of many foods. This message strategy likely did little to assuage the fears of those who stigmatize chemicals in their perceptions of risk.

2.13 Involve the public in dialogue about risk/dialogue/ stakeholder (when  appropriate)

If BPI had been less of a hidden organization prior to the “pink slime” controversy, it may have been better positioned to address the crisis. For example, if an environmentally conscious public had been involved in a dialogue involving world hunger and waste in the meat processing industry before the crisis, BPI may have had more support. Instead, their invisibility to the public until the crisis erupted allowed ABC News and other media representatives to define both the controversy and the motives of BPI.  Moreover, organizations like BPI, who used environmental claims to refute bad price, might have benefitted from forming an alliance with a nonprofit group that focuses on sustainable use of the food supply, etc., to legitimize some of their practices.

2.14 Meet risk perception needs by remaining open and accessible to the public

Response to points

While the industry was certain of their ground in their public response, they appeared not to directly address the high level of public concern and the suddenly elevated level of anxiety. BPI principally responded to emotionally charged rhetoric with impersonal, scientifically correct statements, printed and website information.

2.15 Collaborate and coordinate about risk with credible information sources

One of the criticisms raised against BPI was that their process was not widely understood and that the public at large was unaware the Lean Finely Textured Beef was used as a filler in hamburger patties. Though the process and practice were accepted, approved and inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture, there was no mandatory labeling for LFTB as it was, in essence, just beef.

BPI sought permission from USDA for voluntary product labeling to show that products contained LFTB as an ingredient, which USDA did permit. Thus, BPI had coordinated with a highly credible source, USDA, in responding with a voluntary new practice on labeling that could conceivably keep consumers better informed.

Whether such a practice would ultimately reassure consumers, or whether the voluntary labeling could itself create further misapprehensions is unproven and conceptual at this stage.

USDA itself did respond to elevated levels of public concern by allowing school districts to make their own decisions as to whether they would allow LFTB in their school lunch programs. While allowing increased freedom of choice, the move clearly did not reassure current users of LFTB of its wholesomeness and safety. In fact, the USDA may have also actually contributed to BPI’s negative image by the changes it made in the school lunch program. Some consumers may have actually seen allowing school districts to opt out of beef products including LFTB as an endorsement of the claims made by ABC News.

2.16 Credibility of information sources

As the industry was portrayed by the media and perceived by the public as the source of the problem, and benefiting commercially from a food production process that appeared distasteful, the public could be expected to view the industry’s perspective as being, at the least, tinged with some level of self-interest. So it became even more crucial for government to intervene to back the industry’s risk communication. Unfortunately, this level of supportive communication was not apparent during the peak of the crisis.

Dr. Elisabeth Hagen (2012), Undersecretary for the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA, did release a statement two weeks after the ABC News story appeared, that was posted on a USDA blog. She explained, first, that she approaches her role as “a food safety expert and a physician, but also as a mother” (p. 1). She then defended LFTB by saying, “The process used to produce LFTB is safe and has been used for a very long time.  And adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume” (p. 1). The difficulty for Hagen and other USDA officials is that the ABC News story has established the organization as having been partial in its approval of LFTB. Moreover, the individuals interviewed in the ABC News story were former USDA employees who the ABC reporter labeled as “whistle blowers.” Thus, the organization with the greatest visibility and potential objectivity was diminished in its credibility by the ABC accusations. USDA offered little in the way of a rebuttal to these claims other than passively discounting them as inaccurate.

The American Meat Industry also responded of behalf of BPI and LFTB by creating a video, posted on YouTube nine days after the first ABC News story, clarifying how the product is made and proclaiming its safety. This video is now available on the BPI Web site as well. Although the American Meat Institute brings considerable objectivity to the case, the organization’s primary response occurred days after the “pink slime” controversy peaked in media coverage. In addition, the video had a limited impact in that, as of August 21, 2013, the video on YouTube had been viewed only 21, 762 times. Had BPI been better connected with the USDA and American Meat Institute before the crisis, the company may have been able to coordinate a response to the ABC News story within hours rather than days or weeks after its first broadcast.   

3. Lessons learnt and implication drawn from the use of best practices for RC*

Rather than demonstrating that risk communication was effectively used in this scenario, the case study provides a very telling illustration of the negative and, in this case serious and immediate consequences for consumers, industry and regulatory oversight if sound risk communication practice is not part of policy, decision-making, issue management and crisis response. In essence, then, BPI exercised its only option in responding to the “pink slime” controversy. Because, in Scott’s (2013a) terms, the company and it primary product were hidden from consumers prior to the crisis, the only choice available to BPI was to redefine the issue.

3.1 Visibility and product awareness before a crisis give an organization a better opportunity to frame the crisis

Although this redefinition is well developed, it occurred after consumers were inundated with media stories portraying their product as unsafe, disgusting, and a form of consumer fraud. Had BPI been visible prior to the crisis, they might have been included in the discussion as the broke. Instead, BPI was placed in a responsive mode from the start of the crisis—a position they still hold.

If organizations such as BPI can establish some form of consumer credibility prior to a crisis such as the “pink slime” controversy, they are likely to have a larger audience much sooner in the discussion. Many of the statements made about LFTB and the increasing need for efficiency in feeding a growing world population could have been emphasized from a public relations standpoint years before the “pink slime” controversy. Similarly, BPI is an industry leader in food safety technology, this fact could have emphasized publicly as well. In short, much of the responsive rhetoric generative by BPI could have been displayed in a promotional means well before the controversy. Doing so would have given BPI a favorable reputation, albeit to a smaller audience, before facing a crisis. Organizations falling into the hidden category can consider how they might expand their corporate reputation before facing a major crisis.

3.2 Exemplars in media coverage have the potential to create exaggerated perceptions of risk

The “pink slime” controversy is a clear demonstration of the powerful impact exemplars in media coverage can have on organizations, agencies, and entire industries. Hidden organizations and products are even more vulnerable to such crises of perception. Waiting to initiate a public dialogue about a potentially controversial product or policy until after a crisis erupts is ineffective management. Organizations at all levels can benefit from an understanding of how quickly public perceptions are created or altered through media exemplification. Such exemplification could also emerge through new media channels without the media’s involvement. Thus, organizations must consider their reputations and the reputations of their goods and services prior to any controversy. Any sort of dialogue that can be created with consumers, regulatory agencies, and industry representatives before a crisis represent time and resources well spent.

3.3 Establish relationships with relevant organizations and agencies before a crisis occurs.

The USDA and the American Meat Institute offered messages defending both BPI and LFTB. Unfortunately, these messages were slow in coming and did not top the media’s agenda. Moreover, USDA was accused of bias in the approval of LFTB. Had BPI established strong ties to these organizations in communicating about food safety before the “pink slime” controversy, the three organizations could have made a concerted effort to counter the exemplification initiated by the ABC News coverage. This coordinated effort prior to the crisis could have allowed the organizations to provide a unified response within hours rather than days and weeks of the ABC News story.

3.4 Carefully evaluate the nature of the issue management or crisis scenario before devising or executing a response plan.

The initial response by BPI was largely scientific in nature. The company reiterated the LFTB process and explained how ammonia was used to actually improve food safety. This scientific explanation did not, however, address the stigma of chemicals in food, the wide variance in science and health literacy, the visceral reaction to seeing pictures of liquefied meat, and the fact that consumers had not been aware of the fact that LFTB was regularly added to ground beef purchased in grocery stores. Thus, the initial response of BPI failed to fully account for the varying dimensions of public outrage.

  1. Determine, in advance, the specific type of risk communication response that is needed as determined by:
    1. the actual level of risk involved – ranging from virtually non-existent to acute 
      and
    2. the public perception of the impact of that risk – ranging from complacency and neutrality to outrage.

Not all crises are rooted in fact. The “pink slime” controversy posed no actual risk of harm to consumers. Rather, the controversy posed actual risks to the financial stability of organizations such as BPI. Organizations should recognize early and respond accordingly to the type of risk they face. Food contaminations require immediate recalls and urgent public communication. Crises of perception require an immediate response focused on bolstering the credibility of the organization and industry. Although the content differs, a timely organizational response is essential for both times of crises.

3.6 In “high outrage” scenarios, acknowledge and be very sensitive to the needs and the beliefs of the affected parties. Merely supplying data is unlikely to placate emotionally held concerns.

Although consumers may have initially responded to fears of food safety, there was never any credible evidence presented by ABC News or any other broadcaster that LFTB is dangerous. In fact, the product has been used for 30 years without incident. Thus, this crisis was one of perception rather than threat. Perception is reality for consumers. Hence, crisis communicators are most effective when they acknowledge these perceptions—whether they are accurate or not—and craft message to address them. We know, for example, that turkey processing plants use similar methods to produce ground turkey for consumer consumption, but were not affected by the “pink slime” controversy. This should, though, serve as a warning to industries such as this to develop a PR strategy proactively rather than retroactively.

3.7 Respond to dramatic and evocative rhetoric and images that are misleading with equally powerful comments and clear imagery that impactfully capture the truth of the situation.

The images included in the ABC News coverage combined a negative phrase with unsightly images to create an exemplar. Initially, the BPI response did little, beyond still images and a compelling analogy, to respond to this powerful exemplar in the media coverage. Later in the crisis, BPI added well-designed video messages that have a better potential for countering this level of extreme coverage. Unfortunately for BPI, this more sophisticated response did not come until the crisis had reached a level that crippled sales of LFTB.

3.8 Collaborate and coordinate with credible sources of information.

In crises of perception such as that faced by BPI during the “pink slime” controversy, seeking the support of neutral parties seen as credible by consumers is essential. Hearing form these parties early in the crises helps to counter assumptions that a company created the crisis by prioritizing profits over safety and quality.

3.9 Always ensure that your risk management measures are proportional to the actual level of risk, as determined by the most objective risk assessment available.

The “pink slime” controversy serves as an example where food safety is juxtaposed with consumer perception. If a true food safety risk is at hand, the product must be immediately withdrawn from circulation and changes must be made in the regulation of food processing or preparation. Any questions of responsibility or culpability are secondary to this first step of avoiding consumer contact with the contaminated food. As such, a food safety crisis warrants activating a well-established series of steps. In crises of consumer perception, however, the steps are less clear. When a story reaches the level of exemplification, the organization must rapidly respond with a compelling message that is supported by credible and objective agencies from government or the industry. The entire focus is on maintaining the organization’s credibility and on correcting erroneous perceptions. Know this difference is essential if organizations are to effectively plan for and initiate an effective crisis response.

--This case study was developed in part with the assistance of:

Deborah Sellnow, Wayne State University
&
Timothy Sellnow, University of Kentucky

 

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