Food production, safety and transparency–and a darn good movie

Last night I finally got the chance to watch Food Inc, the hit documentary about food production. I say finally because I’ve been talking with my son about this movie for a couple of years, asking all the while “can I blog on it now?” Chris, our son, a cinematographer on this film and has been wonderfully mentored by producer-director Robby Kenner.

There are many in the food business who hate this film, and many farmers who seem to think it is attacking them. I’m one who has spent part of my life working for the big and powerful corporations and even some regulatory agencies who are attacked here. But I am very grateful for this excellent film, primarily because the most important theme is transparency.

There are certainly some oxes gored here, so to speak. I don’t think all of it was fair and once in a while the film got into a activist-propagandist mode–but that was pretty rare. There certainly are good guys and bad guys–white hats and black hats and that melodramatic style, while highly entertaining, tends to ignore the complexities of real life.

Monsanto wore the blackest hat of all. Too bad that Monsanto’s primary defense seems to that they didn’t decline to be interviewed. The back and forth on this topic has dominated some of the director’s interviews–in Vanity Fair for example. But that misses the point. If food producers and agribusinesses of all kinds–large and small–think that the public would not approve of their methods of production, they should stop. If they do not believe that what they would do would pass the smell test or stand scrutiny of the open air, then they should stop. If they do believe what they are doing is in the public interest, the for the sake of all of us who cherish a supply of healthy, abundant, inexpensive food, defend yourselves.

Do not be stupid like the oil industry and say, well, people have to buy our product anyway so it doesn’t matter whether they love us or hate us. That attitude is costing all of us because of the high cost of digging out of a reputation hole. For example, if those reactionary politicians had successfully passed a windfall profits tax, who would be paying more for our fuel?

Open the doors to your slaughter houses and your killing floors. Let the light of day into your hiring practices. If you can’t successfully defend them, change them. But please understand that hiding equals guilt and you appear to be doing all you can to hide. Today’s transparency won’t allow that. If you can’t defend what you are doing on the basis of the value of cheap, plentiful and healthy food, then it needs to change.

I think it is high time that we have a serious debate about our food production methods, our food safety standards, the value or lack of organics. To do that the public needs to know what is going on. Those who believe, as one chicken farmer stated, that we are producing more food for more people with less resource than ever before–those voices need to be heard. That one farmer can produce food for hundreds, that needs to be heard. We need to know if all food was created the “new” old way, how many would starve, or go without medicines to buy foods.

Food Inc may very well be seen as a trigger point in really getting the national debate on food safety and production methods going. I hope so and if it does it will have served an incredibly valuable and historic purpose. But I hope that debate, if it comes, is not one sided. I hope that reasonable voices with as much research and careful thought behind them as Michael Pollan has marshalled will enter the debate on the side of the likes of Monsanto, Tyson, Smithfield and others. Only if we hear clearly from all sides of this important issue will the right public policies be made as well as the right and proper consumer decisions.

Thank you Robby and Chris–great job and now to the Oscars!

More on Horizon Realty tweet suit–more to the story

I’m actually quite relieved to hear more of Horizon Realty’s side of the story that puts a different light on their $50,000 lawsuit against a tweeter tenant. From this ABC News article, Horizon was actually responding to a class action lawsuit filed by the tenant. According to them, there was no mold issue, but there was a leaky roof problem. Furthermore, the comment about being a sue first, ask questions later organization was apparently “taken out of context.”

It’s interesting that this story in ABC was about To 10 Social Media gaffes and the gaffe committed here according to ABC was the “snarky” post from the tweeter. Why is complaining on social media about an apartment a “gaffe?” Because it might cost you $50,000 in a lawsuit. That is a dreadful message. So, no complaints folks, don’t even think about making some nasty comment on Twitter about a company because they might sick their big legal dogs on you. Is that what you mean to say ABC?

As one commenter said, we are a sue happy country. She sued them for a bad apartment, they turned around and sued her for a tweet they didn’t like–clearly simply a legal strategy to put pressure on her to drop the class action. Why don’t we all just calm down and take all our lawyers’ phone numbers off speed dial?

But, bigger crisis communication lessons here: Can’t help but concluding yet that Horizon’s legal ploy will cost them business big time. Taking out the big legal gun against a tweeter does not fit well with the value system of the apartment dwelling younger set in Chicago. I’m suspecting many tweeters there will avoid this company–I sure would.

Second , if the “sue first, ask questions later” comment was indeed tongue in cheek and “taken out of context” that spokesperson needs some serious media training. Don’t include such foolish comments in any context. Watch out for those contexts–they’ll kill you every time. And if you were really screwed over by the reporter this way, why the heck wasn’t it all over your website or all over the news media telling the world how badly the reporter treated you? Horizon is lucky that their story fit into something ABC was doing and they gave it such a friendly treatment–ridiculously so as I pointed out. At least it gave them one more chance to try and say we’re not as sue happy as it looks and as we said we were.

Thinking about suing somebody over a tweet? Think again.

Horizon Realty Group in Chicago goes into my special category of The Dumbest PR Moves.  As this post from podcastingnews reports, they are suing a tenant over a pretty darn mild tweet complaining about the mold in an apartment. Suing for $50,000. The person tweeting had 22 followers. That means that maybe 4, maybe 5 people saw the complaint. Maybe all 22. Now how many people are seeing this complaint tweet. Thousands? Millions maybe?

But, that’s not the worst of it. Not sure who Jeffrey Michael is, something tells me he might be the same person who decided it was a good idea to sue the unhappy tenant. When asked about this he said (at least according to the report and it is so stupid I’m wanting to believe the report is wrong): “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization.” By way of explanation he said the company has a good reputation it wants to preserve. Well, Mr. Michael, kiss that good reputation goodbye. You just succeeded in telling the world that one tenant thinks your apartment has mold. You also told the world what you do to poor, hapless tenants who are so bold as to express even a mild opinion about you. And finally you told the world what kind of character you have–one that will sue first and ask questions later.

Thinking that maybe this someone over there was smart enough to figure out that they stepped on themselves big tiime, I just went to their website, hoping against hope they would have a message on there that said, “Sorry folks, we screwed up. What were we thinking. Must have been out too late last night. Never should have sued, bad idea, not the way to treat people who complain, and the person we wronged will get a free apartment for six months.” Uhhnn, no. Nothing on their website except being a premiere something or other. Premiere jackasses, I think.

The People's Stimulus–at the heart of an Obama problem

Just got this info on the People’s Stimulus Package via Peter Shankman’s HARO (Help a Reporter Out). I love this approach. We really can make a difference if we are asked to do something reasonable and meaningful. I try real hard to stay non-political here but one quiet criticism I have of President Obama is that he has never told us what we could do. I wanted so badly for that ringing call of President Kennedy when he said ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country. My gosh, that has been the key to all our national crises from our very foundations. We will pitch in, we will sacrifice, we will join together. But this crisis has been different. Never in my recollection has anything been asked of us other than to trust our government and be patient. The emphasis has always been on what the government will do and is doing to fix things. I’m glad they are doing things, but I want to do things too and I think about 300 million or so would be glad to help. Just give us a hint!

Well, here is one. $2 bills.

Here's a great video to use for media training–no apology from Louis Gates Jr's arresting officer

Like most in this business I have done a number of media training programs. We usually look for good examples to show of what to do and what not to do. Here’s a great example of someone who hasn’t been media trained–or if he has, the lesson didn’t take.

The story is about the hot topic on the internet and twitter right now about the arrest of Harvard scholar and TV personality Louis Gates Jr. He was arrested after “breaking into” his own home. Despite the fact that he was in his home and showed his ID, the Cambridge police arrested him. Their reports are he was angry, called them racist and refused to step outside. Pres Obama stepped into this in a news conference saying the police “acted stupidly.” Right now the White House is trying to defuse it by saying, well, he really didn’t mean the police were stupid, or the officer was stupid or anyone was stupid but you are taking the words “acted stupidly” wrong. Geez, they would have been keeping their mouths shut and let it lay.

Back to the video. What did he do wrong. One, he said he wasn’t going to say anything–then he said exactly what they hoped he would. He claimed that he had not been told not to say anything, but then made clear that he was not saying anything because, well, sort of,. Third, he looked quite a bit like a deer caught in headlights–nice persona, good joking about his lawn and all, but clearly caught off guard and looking quite uncomfortable. He kept engaging them–they did a great job, just like a good telemarketer, of keeping him engaged. You could see his guard dropping further and further and then they went in for the kill: will you apologize. And that’s where he made his headline-creating mistake. He not only said no, emphatically no, in effect hell no, he said he never would and when asked if it meant losing his job, he spoke for his department by saying it aint going to happen, won’t ever happen. Now he backed himself into a corner big time but also the whole police department.

Nice guy, maybe just doing his job, probably a great police officer–I don’t know. But if I was his boss, I’d send out the order–keep this guy away from the news crews.

It’s not fair and that’s the point.  If only he had been to Dick Brundage’s media training.  He would have given the reporters no more than twelve seconds of “I’m proud to be a Cambridge police officer and proud every day of the job I do protecting the citizens of this wonderful city.” Period. End. No story. No headline. No national controversy, and no great media training video.

Ignore the mainstream media–from Amazon to the White House, looks to be the new trend

I was fascinated the other day with Breaking News On announcement of the White House announcing a press conference via Twitter. What’s amazing about that, is that they announced it via Twitter quite a while before letting the press know via traditional means.

Then this story today about Amazon and Zappos announcing the acquisition of Zappos by Amazon. They did it through company blog and posting a video of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. They ignored main stream media calls. Ignored them. The cheeky ValleyWag blog commented:

Bezos cut out the middleman — the press, in this case — big time. And why not? Instead of having to answer boring financial questions, Bezos got to pontificate on Amazon’s history, ostensible focus on its customers, and on his management philosophy. The manic laugher would never have been able to sermonize like this in the Wall Street Journal.

Note: Cut out the middleman. Exactly. I’ve been trying to convince public relations managers, heads of communication, emergency response managers, PIOs, etc., that they days of media-centric communications are gone. Been preaching this since 2001 when I wrote it in my book with the chapter title: You Are the Broadcaster.

Clearly Amazon and Zappos could benefit from all the news coverage around this important acquisition. Clearly they are getting it. Plus a lot of blog talk, etc. But they opted not to go first–or in this case, at all–to the media. Why? Because they are the broadcaster and they know it. The post-media world is here to stay.

Oh my goodness, the United guitar problem really went viral

I just noticed that Dave Carroll made himself into a musical superstar activist with his complaint about United. Now over 3.4 million–yes I said million, views of his musical “tribute.” When I blogged on this earlier, there were only half a million. It’s caught the attention of communication publications as a great example of the severe damage that can be caused by a single example of poor customer service.

So what’s a company to do: 1) be afraid, be very afraid. 2) prepare to respond very, very, very quickly 3) engage in social media right now–make it part of who you are and what you do 4) use this an example in all your customer service training (not just United, and not just airlines–this example is universal) 5) make very visible all that you do to correct the situation, both from a service standpoint and what you do to mollify the talented Mr. Carroll.

Isolate the "sinner"–great strategy during blog attack

Here is a terrific example of how to deal with a very negative blogger.

As you can see from this account, the blogger had his own agenda and purposes. Mostly likely trying to build his own rep and traffic by being seen as the unconventional critic. Fine for him, unless you are the victim of it. It’s the way it is with most activists and attackers in my experience. They have their own objectives and ambitions, and their take on you is just a means to an end. Nothing personal, so to speak. But in that case, reasoning with them is clearly not going to do any good. Engaging with them in any way isn’t–certainly not in the deceptive way one employee tried to do.

What Mr. Strong advocates is what I call “isolate the sinner.” Or marginalize. By “sinner” I am referring to the designation of three categories of audience in a major issue debate: saints, sinners and saveable. The saints you have with you. The sinners, against you. And the saveables are the swing vote, and that’s where you focus your effort. As I have commented many times before, many of those who appear to be “sinners” are actually saveables. So don’t presume anything. In fact, even in this case, you want to make certain that the blogger is immune to engagement before isolating, because obviously he/she is not going to like it. But, when they have their own agenda, as I said, nothing you can do.

I have used this method many times myself in tough issue management situations. If you go directly after those people closest to the attacker and confront them simply, clearly, kindly, graciously with the facts, the truth, no spin, and plenty of respect, it can do amazing things. They are forced to choose between the credibility their attacker friend has in their mind, and the truth. If you are persuasive, the result will be loss of credibility in their friend. The truth is, either you are telling the truth, or they are. But you better dang well be telling the truth, wholly and completely.

In battles like this, it is always about credibility. The initial win almost always goes to the attacker because you have the motive of profit and cannot be trusted. But if they can be shown to be less than fully and completely honest or if their own motives and agendas becomes obvious, you have a chance not only to level the playing field but win the battle. It always comes down to credibility.

The death of the most trusted man in America

As I write the national news reports are filled with the news of the death of Walter Cronkite. I mourn his passing. With his death we have lost more than a great and good man, we have lost an era. I believe that we have entered the post-media era. But he represented the height and best of the mass media era.

He was named the most trusted man in America. I suspect, even though trust is a much more rare and precious commodity today than in Cronkite’s day, that if he was still doing what he did best, he may very well still be the most trusted man in America. And if the decline of mainstream media forced him into some of the behaviors of journalists today, he would have quit with his trust intact.

I mourn his passing.