On April 25, 2009, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a “public health emergency of international concern” after a new strain of H1N1 influenza that contained human, avian and swine genes was identified in the United States and Mexico. By June 11th, the H1N1 flu outbreak had grown into the first global flu pandemic to emerge in more than 40 years.
The World Health Organization, along with the media, initially called this novel H1N1 influenza “swine flu” which created fear and confusion among consumers regarding the safety of America’s pork products. Despite the fact that the “swine flu” is a respiratory illness, not a food borne disease, several countries including China and Russia banned imports of U.S. pork products, further fueling consumer concerns about the safety of pork.
As a result, pork sales declined, exacerbating a difficult year in which pork producers were already battling rising feed prices along with declining pork prices.
In response, the National Pork Board, working with Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, mobilized an integrated crisis management team to reassure consumers through an aggressive traditional and digital communications campaign that the H1N1 flu could not be contracted by eating pork and pork products.
The overriding objective of the communications campaign was to protect and support U.S. pork sales by reassuring U.S. consumers that pork and pork products were safe to eat and handle. (The National Pork Producers Council, which manages trade issues for America’s 67,000 pork producers, addressed export sales and unfair trade bans.)
Because media coverage of the H1N1 flu outbreak was so widespread, we initially targeted the general population with our messages. However, an initial wave of three overnight tracking surveys revealed significantly lower levels of purchase intent and trust in the safety of pork among Latinos. In response, we began targeting Latino communities with English and Spanish language messages. Working with Axis Communications – an IPG sister agency that specializes in multi-cultural communications – we identified a Spanish-speaking MD to serve as our spokesperson as research had shown that doctors have strong credibility with this audience segment.
Weber Shandwick partnered with KRC Research – an IPG sister agency – to track consumer sentiment.
Initially, we conducted three consecutive overnight telephone surveys of 750 consumers each to:
·         establish a benchmark;
·         assess what consumers were hearing/reading about H1N1 and pork safety;
·         identify key audiences to target; and
·         assess impact on purchase intent.
Our initial round of surveys revealed that we needed to aggressively address consumer confusion as only 88% of consumers who had purchased pork within the last two months thought it was safe to eat pork and 19% were less likely to purchase pork based on what they had read or heard about the flu and pork. Additionally, we learned that Latinos harbored greater concern about the safety of pork than the general population. Consequently, we supplemented our general population tracking surveys with a poll of 150 Spanish-speaking adults.
In total, over a six-week period, beginning April 28th and ending June 4th, we conducted seven rounds of tracking surveys.
These surveys helped us better target our audiences, refine our messages, manage the intensity of our response and measure our success in reassuring consumers that pork was safe to eat and handle.
Message refinement, driven by consumer research, played a key role in our ongoing strategy.
Government spokespeople initially stated that pork was safe to eat if it was cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F. This statement was problematic because it erroneously implied that the H1N1 virus was food borne and could be present in raw pork. Additionally, our research revealed that consumers were more worried about handling raw pork than eating pork.
Initially, the National Pork Board and government officials supported the statement that pork was safe to eat by stating that the H1N1 virus was not present in the U.S. swine herd. This statement also implied that the H1N1 virus was food borne rather than a respiratory illness and that pork would not be safe to eat if the virus were found in a swine herd – which was considered inevitable eventually. In fact, on May 4th Canadian officials announced they had discovered the H1N1 virus in a swine herd in Alberta.
To combat these initial consumer misperceptions, we developed two simple messages.
·         Pork is safe to eat and handle.
·         The H1N1 virus is a respiratory illness, not a food borne illness.
The National Pork Board and National Pork Producers Council asked the U.S. government and WHO to use the scientific name H1N1 not “swine flu” given the fact that the virus contained human, avian and swine genes.
During the first few weeks of the outbreak, we monitored and prepared an analysis of traditional, digital and social media three times per day during the week and twice per day on weekends. We also monitored Twitter continuously via TweetDeck.
To disseminate our messages to the general population and to Spanish-speaking consumers we:
·         created a microsite FactsAboutPork.com and promoted it via online display ads and search ads;
·         established a Twitter handle, @FactsAboutPork and tweeted, re-tweeted and corrected misinformation;
·         reached out to key food and health bloggers;
·         contacted traditional and social media on a real-time basis to educate and correct misinformation;
·         identified and media trained a DVM who worked at an influenza center funded by the CDC and a registered dietician who was also a mother of three to conduct a national satellite and radio media tour to dispel the myths about H1N1 and pork;
·         identified and media trained a Spanish-speaking MD to conduct a satellite and radio tour in Latino communities;
·         issued several press releases and b-roll packages; and 
·         posted video and audio sound bites online.
·         WHO and U.S. agencies began using the term H1N1 flu instead of “swine flu”.
·         Generated nearly 600 million consumer impressions from the National Pork Board or NPB spokespeople stating pork and pork products are safe to eat and handle.
·         Decreased the number of pork consumers who said they were less likely to eat pork by 11 percentage points or 58% over a 6-week period beginning April 29 and ending June 4.
·         Increased the number of pork consumers who believed pork was safe to eat by 6 percentage points or 7% over a 6-week period.
·         Following an initial dip in sales when the “swine flu” outbreak was first announced, fresh pork sales increased 6.3% over the same period the prior year.
·         By monitoring TweetDeck, we identified and were able to correct a misleading and potentially damaging Reuters story before it gained any traction. The headline of the story stated, “WHO Casts Wary Eye on Meat, Blood of H1N1-Infected Pigs”
o   Within hours, Reuters pulled the original story and issued a corrected story stating “WHO reaffirmed today that pork is safe to eat and existing sanitary and animal health checks were sufficient.”
o   Separately, WHO issued two statements to clarify and reiterate that “pork and products were not a source of infection.”