Paul Holmes 01 Apr 2012 // 4:55PM GMT
"Something is seriously out of kilter in our communications environment when safe food products and proven technologies can be torpedoed by sensationalist, misleading, yet entertaining social media campaigns," David Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council, told the Chicago Tribune this week. Schmidt was responding to the recent publicity surrounding “pink slime” in meat products—triggered by a YouTube video from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and exacerbated by ABC news coverage—and the subsequent (supposedly temporary) closure of three plants belonging to manufacturer Beef Products, Inc. Schmidt’s advice: "We should all take several steps back and remember the critical thinking skills we were taught in school." I was getting ready to write a scathing response about the food industry taking several steps back and remembering public relations 101, and perhaps avoiding the temptation to imply that its customers are immature idiots (rarely a persuasive tactic in crisis management). But instead I did what the food industry itself should have done—preferably before the crisis struck—and asked Peter Sandman. Not surprisingly, his response—which you should all read in full—was much more considered, and much less gratuitously critical, than mine would have been. For example, I would have made the strong case that when an industry elects to keep an unappetizing aspect of its operations from public view, it shouldn’t be surprised if that leaves the door wide open for critics to define and brand the product in question—which is why pink slime will always be pink slime and not Sandman says: “The meat industry has always had a choice. It could rub people’s noses in the ickiness—take school kids on slaughterhouse tours, for example. Or it could collude with the public in pretending that meat is pristine…. In the US, at least, the meat industry has always chosen to collude in the pretense. “An inevitable side-effect of that choice is that occasionally an especially vivid example of ickiness gets through people’s defenses, and we overreact…. “If this analysis is sound, there is literally nothing the meat industry could have done to prevent the pink slime debacle—other than coming out of the closet empathically but matter-of-factly about meat’s icky side. Coming out of the closet would also enable the industry to talk about various reductions in ickiness it has implemented (ideally giving full credit to the activists who forced the changes). It’s hard to point to improvements in a problem you’re not prepared to mention.” I’d make that case a little more forcefully if only because in today’s social media age, this kind of controversy can be delayed but it can no longer be prevented. One day, the public is going to see secretly-filmed footage of your industry’s dirtiest little secret—and the more it comes as a surprise, the mote violent the reaction is likely to be. I would also have made the point that the industry wasn’t going to win the argument by insulting its critics, impugning their motives, and sneering at those who find pink slime—in Sandman’s word—“icky.” Says Sandman: “Most of the responses are understandably but ineffectually outraged at the public’s outrage. Few if any are empathic with the public’s natural and understandable revulsion at the discovery that a significant portion of the hamburger we eat is salvaged meat waste sprayed with ammonia—perhaps a kind of meat technically (or perhaps not), but certainly not quite what we mean when we say ‘meat’” What could an industry spokesman do to avoid seeming unempathetic? “He has basically two options. He can keep a low profile and try to hang onto as many customers as he can, hoping that the fuss will blow over without new regulations or permanent stigma and former customers will begin to return. Or he can make his case, empathically, respectfully, and candidly. “That would mean using the term ‘pink slime’ a lot, sometimes even without quotation marks. Euphemisms never cut it in controversies. The only path forward is to use the uncomfortable label critics are using to talk about the uncomfortable issues critics are raising. “Tougher still, it would mean conceding that millions of people understandably found the idea of pink slime—and the television footage that went with it—seriously disgusting…. The price of admission for asserting the safety and value of LFTB is acknowledging the repulsiveness of pink slime.” But like I said, you should read the whole thing.