The release of Food, Inc., and why it signals the next big battle

Tomorrow the film “Food, Inc.” hits movie theatres in major American cities. The buzz around this film has already been enormous, including Director Robert Kenner and Michael Pollan appearing on Good Morning America on June 9.

You know the battle over global warming. You know the battle over public health and smoking. Now prepare for the food battle. I think what is a smoldering crisis for the high production food industry will erupt into a full blown crisis and this movie may very well provide the necessary spark.

First, I should tell you I have some personal connections here. My son, Chris, is an Emmy-nominated cinematographer working in film and television in LA. The person who hired him on in LA in his first job out of film school was none other than Robby Kenner. Indeed, Chris shot some of the more intriguing segments of Food, Inc. I am very very proud of what he has done here.

I also know Robby. Certainly not well and while I know him well enough to know we don’t agree on all things political and cultural, I do know that he is a wonderful, gentle, and very talented man.

Finally, as an example of Robby’s graciousness, he invited my daughter Ashley to the media preview of Food, Inc., knowing she is one of the top food bloggers in the world. Son Chris might have had something to do with this as well. Ashley’s review of the film and her delightful time with Robby and Marguerite are recorded in her blog Not Without Salt.

I have not seen the entire movie. Saw parts of it while being edited, saw the trailer and certainly talked to my son and daughter about it. Robby calls it a “horror film” about the horrors of what we eat and how our food is produced.

My main point here is not to engage in the firestorm that is already burning on this issue and will be fanned further by this movie. What I will find most interesting about this is the way in which the high production food industry deals with this huge issue and the obviously growing concern among at least a sizeable segment of its customers about their practices and methods. This is a crisis of major proportions. It is a debate very much worth having and I for one am glad that valuable information is being put out on the table with this film and consumer decisions can be made an on informed basis.

But I will tell you that I hope the high production food industry does a much better job of responding to this very serious challenge that what I have seen so far. For one thing, major chicken producers did their best to stonewall and hide from the filmmakers. Bad thing in an age of transparency. If you have nothing to hide, why hide it?

Monsanto is doing better with a website specifically aimed at addressing the myths, misunderstandings and misinformation of the movie. Here is how it starts:

Welcome to the Monsanto Fact site about the movie Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. is a one-sided, biased film that the creators claim will “lift the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that’s been hidden from the American consumer.” Unfortunately, Food, Inc. is counter-productive to the serious dialogue surrounding the critical topic of our nation’s food supply.

Not a promising start to the very important debate. Doesn’t help to demonize or heat the rhetoric. What is important is reasoned and strong messaging around the key points that matter to those who are unconvinced either way.  Those, like my daughter, feel passionately about the damaging impacts of our current mass production of food. They have a very strong point. But there are important counter points. For one thing, how many people in the world would starve if all food were produced in the way that the heroes of this film are doing it? How many people can afford the substantial costs differences? What would they have to give up to pay the much higher costs of food? If all these corn products are bad for us, should the government outlaw them–or provide limits on how much can be produced?

I will tell you my greatest fear in all of this. If the high production food industry does as poor a job of entering the public debate as the nuclear industry has and as the oil industry has, there is no doubt that we will see government take a much greater role in our food production. I want informed consumers. I think making our own choices is critical. But if only one side of this important debate is heard from or is effective in their messages, there is little doubt that we will soon see a whole new round of regulations that will cost all of us a lot of money and limit our choices and personal freedoms. And it will be the food industry’s fault.

This all started ten years ago

Tomorrow, June 10, 2009, marks a solemn anniversary. It is the day that a gasoline pipeline running through our city of 75,000 ruptured, spilling 300,000 gallons of gasoline into a pristine, tree-lined stream. It erupted into a ball of fire that rolled a mile and half in both directions along the stream. Three young lives were lost in those moments–two ten year old boys playing near the stream and an 18 year old fisherman who had picked up his high school diploma that morning. He succumbed to the fumes and fell into the stream of fuel and drowned.

This event, the Olympic Pipeline disaster, provided a shock to everyone in our community that will live as long as those who have memories of that day. It created massive safety and public information regulations and laws in the pipeline industry. There were millions and millions in legal settlements–a process that went on for years.

I remember telling my wife on that day or in the crazy few days after it that life would never be the same. We certainly knew some of families devastated by this tragedy and grieved with them and for them. I was pulled into the response because I was a public affairs contractor for the company who was an owner and operator of the pipeline. I was deeply involved in the efforts to communicate from the earliest hours and served as the company’s spokesperson for some time.

It was from this experience that the PIER System was born and it has grown to become the leading public affairs and crisis communication technology–in use by a rapidly growing number of federal, state and local government agencies, large companies, major non-profits, universities and many others. In trying to help educate and inform others in crisis management and emergency communications what I learned from this experience and from subsequent involvement in many events and exercises, I have been quite surprised to find myself speaking to groups of professionals, writing in industry publications, and writing a blog that some people even seem to pay attention to.

The journey that was started ten years ago was unimaginable. There has been much joy and much reason for gratitude in all that I have learned and experienced. But I will tell you this for certain, for whatever has been gained, I would trade in a heartbeat to have those three young lives spared. Who can say why such unspeakable tragedies occur? But what we are called to do, is to use them as best we possibly can to make this world a better place. I hope a little of that has been accomplished.

More on the story, memories and commemoration from the Bellingham Herald.

Twitter to add verified accounts–while denying it has a problem

I love the way Twitter refused to acknowledged it has a problem with fake Twitter accounts, even while admitting that it was working on a way to fix the problem. Twitter was sued by St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa over a fake Twitter account and here’s how co-founder Biz Stone responded:

“With due respect to the man and his notable work, Mr. La Russa’s lawsuit was an unnecessary waste of judicial resources bordering on frivolous, ” Stone wrote in a post that went up Saturday. “Twitter’s Terms of Service are fair and we believe will be upheld in a court that will ultimately dismiss Mr. La Russa’s lawsuit.”

Fake Twitter accounts are a real problem–particularly in the area of Twitter use where I am most concerned and that is crisis and emergency response communications. In one drill recently where I served as part of “Truth” or the Simulation Cell, I provided and inject where a local Twit set up a Twitter account posing as the local Joint Information Center, then proceeded to give all kinds of false information. It caused a bit of head scratching in the JIC trying to figure out how to put a stop to that. They asked me–can’t we just ask Twitter to shut it down? Nope. No can do. (First off, ever try to actually talk to someone at Twitter about a customer service problem? Yeah, right.)

So while I am glad they are going to make this a little less of a problem with the “verified account” seal of approval, I got a big kick out of the way they announced it. Seems in the age of transparency lawyers are still hanging in the background driving messages. It’s the only reason I can possibly come up with for the snarky attack on Tony LaRussa (bordering on frivolous?  Hey Mr. Stone, do you want people out there pretending to be you with no way of stopping them?) even while promising to fix the problem. I can hear the discussion:

“You can’t come out and announce a fix to fake accounts when we have this lawsuit going, the plaintiff’s attorney will rip you apart.”

“But we got to fix the problem–these fake accounts are hurting our brand.”

“We have to dissociate the announcement from the lawsuit.”

“Ok, how about we talk about how ridiculous it is and that we will win and cry “frivolous.” That way we will fool people into thinking we think there is no problem.”

“Sure, that should work.”

More on personal relationships and social media

Yesterday I commented on the fact that with all the talk about social media, we may be losing the critical importance of the role of high value relationships. Then today this came across through PR Week. David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama spoke at a conference and noted the importance of personal relationships in a campaign. What’s intriguing about this is that the campaign was noted for its sophisticated use of the media and particularly the internet.

He (Plouffle) noted that it’s impossible – and unwise – to avoid digital avenues, something the Obama team excelled at, to be sure. In fact, he said part of the team’s success was its attempt to be everywhere: online, offline, an hour of local media at every campaign stop, and even sports radio – places where swing voters might be lurking. In other words, seeking out those hidden audiences that will make a difference to success.

It was the technology that “enabled us to move our message in a much more effective and powerful way,” Plouffe said. Yet, it was the campaign’s ability to motivate “surrogates” – volunteers – that talked to their friends and neighbors about Obama’s message that allowed it to truly succeed because no one can be everywhere at once, he noted.

“A human being talking to a human being in person is the most effective communications,” he said to the ballroom full of communicators, who were no doubt Tweeting and e-mailing throughout the conference.

Beyond social media–getting back to basics

I confess, like most others in public relations, I have been completely caught up in the whirlwind around social media and its impact on public relations, marketing and crisis management. But once in a while you have to step back and say what is really important here? How does this fit in the bigger picture of business and organizational momentum and even beyond that, to personal life issues?

I’ve been at the marketing, business development, strategic planning, public relations and crisis management game for over 30 years. I look back over the more-than-wonderful experience I have had of working with executives and leaders from small one person shops to executives of some of the largest corporations and government agencies in the world. And I will tell you that experience that there is one word that is far and beyond the most important word in defining success: relationships.

We live in a high tech world the scope of which I could never have imagined in the late 1970s when I ended my college teaching career and began my business career in communications and software. But John Naisbitt was absolutely right when he connected high tech and high touch. The more we move into a technology driven world, he said, the more there would be demand for the personal interactions that lie at the heart of commerce and all of life. The business of living and the life of business is about people. That is equally true of government agencies. When things work well you can invariably point to a remarkably small number of very high value relationships that operate at the heart of that success. When things don’t go well, it is because those key relationships are weak, broken or missing.

I say remarkably few for a reason. In 1997 I wrote a book–now out of print–called Friendship Marketing which focused on this issue of strategic relationships. I did informal research in talking to literally hundreds of businesses–frequently at conferences where I was speaking and asked them this question: How many relationships does your business absolutely depend on so that if you were to lose one of them it would cause you to lose sleep at night. I won’t keep you in suspense. I came to a magic number and that number is 6. Sure there are examples where the number is more than that–but it always, always ended up being a number that was shocking to the person providing the information because of how small it really was.

The meaning for the marketing and business development strategy that I advised was simple. If you depend now on a very small number of key relationships and you know that if you grow to ten or 100 times your current size, you will still depend on a remarkably few very important people, who might they be? You can identify them. By name. You can find them. You can find their contact information. You can find where they go to dinner, play golf, go to church. These people are reachable. Some easier than others obviously, but the point is you can find them and identify them. The power of this for marketing is absolutely immense and I can tell you stories of how that concept played out in marketing strategies I recommended.

But this is about crisis management. I always start in talking with a client about their preparations or their response capability by asking: who are the people whose opinion about you matters most for your future? For a federal agency, that answer may very well be key members of a Congressional committee who decides on agency funding. More to the point, it probably comes to key staff people of the Senators or Congress members who sit on that committee. For a non-profit it probably comes down to key donors and those who influence the key donors. For a business it certainly includes critical customers but also shareholders, key managers, their families, regulators, and perhaps leaders in the community where they operate. It is usually not difficult to come up with a list of 50, 25 or even 6 people who really matter a lot to the future.

The fact that this kind of strategy does not typically play into public relation’s peoples thinking about crisis preparation continues to surprise me. The mantra I have been repeating about crisis preparation is this: fast, direct, transparent. When I say direct, I mean DIRECT to those whose opinion matters most of the future of the organization.

Social media? Important yes, but I am believing it is more and more a huge distraction from the real business of building brands and reputation management which is far more effective and fundamental. The real business is identifying those strategic relationships, evaluation the value they place on you and what you do, and doing all you can to strengthen that relationship even while you define the key relationships you need for your future.

(By the way, I want to thank my wife for helping me pull back a bit and focus on what is important here. I love you hon.)

Just how big (and valuable) is Twitter anyway?

While Twitter is the latest in a string of social media crazes to seriously impact public relations and crisis communication, some new studies provide helpful perspective on its reach, use and impact.

This report from mashable quoting a Harvard Business Review study shows that most tweets come from a relatively small number of very active users. They say in this way Twitter is more like Wikipedia than Facebook. (Thanks, Bill B for that one.)

Several other outlets including Wall Street Journal and Daily Dog are reporting on  study by Participatory Marketing Network (or is it Media Network–the articles don’t seem to agree)  that the penetration  by younger (18-24) Twitter users is only 22%. That compares with 99% of that group who have profiles on social media networks.

It’s also interesting to see what people are using Twitter for. The study: Of those who did use Twitter, 85% said they follow friends, 54% follow celebrities, 29% follow family members and 29% follow companies.

Twitter’s response is to say that they are coming up with innovative new features. I don’t think that will change the fundamental dynamics at play here. The fact is most people simply don’t have the time needed to spend communicating with anybody and everybody in this way. Some of these social network tools might be wonderful for expanding your social or even your business network, but I suspect the vast majority of people are more like me where other demands are such that I have continual guilt about not spending more quality time with the very important relationships who mean the most to me. The last thing I need is to spend time connecting with strangers. And frankly, the language, attitudes and hijacking of these forms for those with the most disgusting purposes turns me off.

Twitter is vitally important for crisis communication purposes a H1N1 and the CDC made clear recently. And if people want to use it for a complete waste of time in following the life of Ashton Kutcher for example, that’s their problem. It’s just not surprising that people have better things to do with their time than being in constant communication with others whose idea of “What are you doing right now” is sitting in Starbucks or providing unnecessary information about bodily functions.