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Contamination communications

19 Jun 2011

Burson Marsteller's Bob Pickard is your Asia-Pacific ThinkTank commentator until the summer. He will be responding to events in the region on a weekly basis, offering a provocative view of the PR issues at stake. You can reach Bob on bob.pickard@bm.com

Taiwan is the latest Asian market to be hit with a food contamination scandal, outraging consumers at home and tarnishing its reputation abroad.

A toxic industrial chemical called DEHP was found to have been illegally added to dozens of Taiwanese food and beverage products. Nearly two hundred companies have been implicated; many recalls have taken place, and prosecutors have been busy, with several culprits receiving stiff fines and long jail terms.

A large number of countries have reacted strongly. For example, the American authorities advised supermarket owners to pull affected Taiwanese products from store shelves, while mainland China halted the import of almost a thousand products made in Taiwan.

Some might think that’s ironic, because China itself has been the source of so many food contamination scares, most famously when a Chinese baby formula containing the industrial chemical melamine caused the horrible death of several infants and sickened hundreds of thousands.

Of course, China is not alone in having suffered such shameful incidents: the Snowbrand tainted milk wrongdoing in Japan a decade ago – which also killed people and harmed large numbers – is one of that country’s most storied crisis communications debacles.

Contamination scandals are a particularly serious risk to national reputations, because they make people think that the products of the country concerned cannot be trusted to meet safety standards. The credibility of national governments and the quality perceptions of a country’s companies and the products they produce is then undermined. With the corrosive loss of confidence that follows, the veracity of a country’s communications can be called into question across a wide swath of issues and contexts.

While a food contamination scandal may involve just one product or company, the nationality of a company is always accentuated in the media coverage. In the ‘perception blur’ that follows such flurries of country publicity, people rush to generalized judgments often rooted in bias and stereotype. There is also such a nauseated reaction to product poisoning; a visceral feeling of disgust that can be profoundly inimical to a country’s brand image.

Perhaps this why China reacted so strongly to its 2008 baby milk crisis; in addition to meting out tough justice by executing those found responsible, Beijing introduced a much ballyhooed food safety law in 2009. They may have erred in making such a big deal out of that because in recent weeks, there have been alarming new concerns about tainted pork, toxic milk, dyed buns and other suspect foods, churning consumers’ stomachs and highlighting the authorities’ apparent inability to regulate China’s food industry.

I’ve seen several trust surveys over the years in Asia which have shown that socially responsible corporations are seen as those creating quality products and services and standing behind them when something goes wrong. When a country has unscrupulous food producers, it is impossible to achieve either of those things.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao – who after the Sichuan earthquake a few years ago earned such positive reviews for his crisis communications aplomb – said in recently published remarks: “These virulent food-safety incidents have revealed a grave situation of dishonesty and moral degradation…without high-quality citizens or ethical strength, China cannot be a respectable economy or power in a real sense.”

If he’s making such blunt comments so transparently, then you know how high the stakes are for China’s image. You might also be a bit unsettled about what you eat when you visit there.

 

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