The Tweeters of Doom: How Social Media Impact Food Safety and Risk Communication - Part I of II

Adapted from an article published in the February/March 2014 issue of Food Safety Magazine.

George Orwell once said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Nowhere is this struggle greater than in perceptions about food safety.

It started on Christmas Eve in 1992 when 6-year-old Lauren Rudolph, exhibiting many of the symptoms of intestinal flu, was taken to a San Diego emergency room. Soon it became clear that it was much more serious than a garden-variety stomach bug. As doctors puzzled over the cause of her illness, Lauren’s condition quickly deteriorated. She endured excruciating pain and dehydration. Her kidneys failed. This child of age 6 even suffered heart attacks. Within just three days, little Lauren was dead. How could a girl who was the very picture of health one day systemically collapse the next?

The culprit would eventually be identified as a simple but deadly bacterium known as E. coli O157:H7 —or as the Los Angeles Times dubbed it, “The bug that ate the burger,” the source of which was traced back to undercooked hamburgers eaten at a quick-service restaurant. Its notoriety would spread like wildfire, going from barely a blip on the public’s radar to a household term at lightning speed.

The E. coli scare of 1992–1993 became a bellwether for food safety, issues management, and crisis communications.

A bevy of far-reaching regulatory changes quickly followed. The USDA declared E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in beef - the first time the term had been applied to anything other than chemical contaminants and foreign objects. Additional testing and sampling were now required. Multiple recalls occurred in subsequent years, and other strains of E. coli were added to the list of adulterants. HACCP became mandatory industry-wide, up and down the supply chain.

And it worked. E. coli levels in U.S. ground beef dropped 80 percent from their high in 2001 (FSIS, 2005), and it was the only major foodborne pathogen that actually fell below the government’s target rate for illness reductions by the year 2010.

But beyond stricter regulations, could social media, had it existed 20 years ago, have lessened the impact on consumers and even saved lives? How would it have changed the company’s approach to issues management and crisis communication?

Since 1996, infection rates of E. coli O157:H7, listeria and campylobacter have fallen dramatically. The trend line for salmonella has been more stable, but is still declining. In terms of the number of outbreaks, a normalized trend line over the first decade of the 21st century is down more than one-third.

Yet other statistics paint a compelling picture of a society increasingly consumed by food safety concerns. So, what could be fueling the rise in these consumer fears?

Google Ngram, a service that, through searching the text of millions of books, offers a good barometer of the public dialogue, shows that uses of the term “foodborne illnesses” more than tripled between 1993 and 2008. In addition, a recent search turned up more than 100 petitions on that mentioned “food safety.”

In the days when E. coli was first thrust into the public’s consciousness (and the communication methods that were considered state-of-the-art at the time) seem almost quaint and alien to us now. In 1992, the Internet became available for commercial use and the first widely available web browser was created. Meanwhile, the future creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was just 7 years old. MSNBC, FOX News Channel, and the first flip phone wouldn’t come into existence for four more years.

PR practitioners were beginning to distribute news releases by fax, but many of them still relied heavily on snail mail. Email was a new tool in a few offices, but many viewed it as a text version of the intercom, not as a means for communicating with the masses.

Despite the limited tactics and technologies at the time, the burger chain at the center of the E. coli outbreak managed to slowly salvage its reputation and viability to a remarkable degree. Although the company’s initial response was criticized, it soon took steps to make things right, which would later become a model for effective response and reputation management.

Layering social media on top of such a crisis today would reveal a much more complex communications environment, demanding a smarter, faster, and more vigorous response. External reports of product contamination, along with criticism from customers, critics, and the media, go viral in a matter of minutes, but an organization in a similar situation today also would have far more opportunities and tools at its disposal to proactively manage these challenges.

Dan Webber, a vice president at PR firm Edelman, has listed the opportunities he believes are made possible by social media in the food safety realm:

  1. Reputation building, marketing, and consumer advocacy.
  2. Providing insight into consumer perceptions.
  3. Identifying advocates and idea-starters.
  4. Disseminating warnings and benefits through food safety education.
  5. Tracking and tracing issues more easily.
  6. Spotting or reporting issues sooner across the supply chain.

It might seem like obvious advice, but every business today that wants to reach customers has little choice but to establish an active presence on social media. With more than 1 billion people on Facebook and more than 500 million Twitter users, anyone who wants to remain competitive and have their messages break through the din must enter the fray—or “fish where the fish are,” as the saying goes.

The opportunities Webber outlines are beneficial not just for businesses, but for consumers, too.

Providing accurate information and correcting the record are in everyone’s interests, and when issues arise, they are best addressed where the conversations are taking place. Otherwise, a communicator might as well be crying out in the wilderness.

Long gone are the days when a toll-free complaint line was sufficient to connect with consumers. Today’s conversations take place in real time. News spreads within a matter of hours, if not minutes. As Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Today’s best communicators are those who are aware of the challenges inherent in social media and prepare for them, knowing what to do in the face of adversity.

From now on, social media channels will be part of the equation, especially if there is significant public interest or need to know. While organizations’ websites will continue to be a critical arrow in their communications quiver for the foreseeable future, the information housed there will go largely unnoticed without vigorous social media and search-optimization plans.

For communicators engaged in issues management and risk communications, it is important to remember that consumers base their beliefs and reactions on their own interpretations of the risk in relation to individual family needs, health, and safety. When framing messages about food risks, IFIC Foundation recommends a few guiding principles to help improve public understanding, including the use of empowering words to increase consumer confidence that are:

  • Intuitive because they “just make sense.”
  • Certain and definitive.
  • Showing that action is taking place.
  • Instructive and prescriptive so that people know what to do.
  • Actually used by consumers.

Conversely, negative concepts evoke fear and uncertainty. The National Center for Food Protection and Defense further recommends steps for ongoing risk communication strategies:

  1. Planning ahead for prompt responses, including establishing a crisis communication network and being willing to accept uncertainty.
  2. Communicating responsibly by forming partnerships with the public, acknowledging public concern, and being open and honest.
  3. Minimizing harm by being accessible to the media, communicating compassion, and providing suggestions for self-protection.

Underlying all of those strategies is a process to continuously evaluate and update crisis plans, while acknowledging and accounting for cultural differences.

The trends over the past 20 years suggest an inverse relationship between actual and perceived threats, and the viral nature of social media for spreading both truths and myths about food is a sword that cuts both ways. Social media have upended everything we thought we knew about mass communications, but one thing is for sure – food risk communicators must learn to navigate it or risk being left in the dust.

To be continued in the May/June issue of Food Insight. 

Matt Raymond is senior director of communications at the International Food Information Council and Foundation.

Anthony Flood is senior director of food safety and defense communications at IFIC and IFIC Foundation.

Dietetic interns Becky Gates and Leigh Tracy of the University of Maryland contributed to this story.