Can social media and “black hat” mainstream media destroy jobs and a company unnecessarily? That’s a central question for those involved in crisis management. Clearly, the answer is yes, which is why those of us involved keep saying: prepare now.
Beef Products Inc. (BPI) is the company at the heart of the “pink slime” debate. I’m not sure if Jamie Oliver coined the term “pink slime,” but if he didn’t he certainly sparked the widespread interest in this product. From the huge and predictable reaction, given the sensationalist nature of Oliver’s presentation, in social media, the story leaped to the front pages by a further sensationalist report particularly by ABC News.
What is “pink slime” and why the outcry? It is beef trimmings that has been treated with ammonia hydroxide gas to eliminate harmful bacteria such as e.coli. Oliver’s complaint is about the beef trimmings and in this video of his TV show he holds up gross-looking pieces of beef and suitable disgusting audience reaction when he mentions that this in your school food. I wish that Oliver would be honest and also show the ingredients of much of German and Italian sausage that he no doubt thinks is among the greatest food on earth (and on that subject I would agree). But he is selective, sensationalist and fundamentally dishonest in my mind.
But he got the reaction he wanted. By showing selective ingredients he suitably disgusted the audience. But then he opens a locked cabinet to reveal “all your household chemicals” including a bottle with a skull on it to show it is poison marked “ammonia.”
(screenshot from Jamie Oliver’s presentation on pink slime)
And, of course, that’s the killer because why would you eat anything treated with a chemical that has a skull on it and needs to be kept safe from children in a locked cabinet?
I’ve always enjoyed Jamie Oliver and think a lot of him as a chef and entertainer, but I find this treatment of “pink slime” disgusting and irresponsible. But, never to miss an opportunity to create fear and outrage, ABC jumped on the story (remember ABC was the primary “investigator” behind Toyota’s “software” problems that turned out to be bogus. Never did see an apology or acceptance of responsibility from ABC and Brian Ross on that one.) Because of the now near panic created by the sensationalist TV entertainment and news stories, the retailers reacted by pulling the product from the shelves, schools refused to provide beef products that included “pink slime,” and pressure was put on government regulators for failing to do their job. No doubt we have our “white knight” legislators already rewriting the rule book on beef products to eliminate pink slime from the marketplace.
The upshot? BPI has shut down all but one of its plants, and is now going on the “offensive” to try to recover its brand, its product and its reputation.
But, another strange thing is happening. News reports are now coming out suggesting that the product isn’t necessarily bad or harmful and the company may have been wronged.
What’s the truth? Yes, the “lean, finely textured beef” that has now become labeled as pink slime includes bits and pieces of beef. But, as the label states, it is beef. And the deadly chemical ammonia hydroxide? Turns out it is a natural chemical found in beef, but a small amount is added to what is already in the beef in order to destroy harmful bacteria.
I blogged yesterday about the Culture of Fear. This shows how entertainers like Jamie know how to play to that, and how reporters and producers know how to attract audiences by heightening fears. It shows how crisis normally start in social media or from videos posted on YouTube and rapidly gain momentum both from amplifying messages in social media and mainstream media. Each step of the process heightens the fear and outrage. It shows how companies, understandably sensitive to their own business, respond at the first sign of consumer reaction and pull the product, further amplifying the message that this stuff must really be bad.
I want to throw open the window, say I’m mad as hell and won’t take this any more! When will we come to our senses and realize that we are being played like a violin?
There are three big lessons from this sad story:
1) We’re only at the beginning of a very disruptive reevaluation of our food. It’s going to be painful. And ultimately, it may signal the end of affordable food. I worry about those who, unlike Jamie, can’t afford food using only the most pristine ingredients and processes.
2) Transparency and disclosure are essential. BPI, like all other food manufacturers, had better come clean and fully disclose what they are doing. It’s better to do it in advance. Don’t wait for new labeling laws. If you are hesitant because you think people won’t understand and buy your product, you may have to change what you are doing. The fact is, people are getting very concerned and if what you are doing is right and good, then tell people. If not, change it now while you can and are not forced to close your plants or business because of this kind of overreaction.
3) Prepare. Sorry BPI, but you should have been prepared. Coming out on the offensive now is far far too late. Yes, a massive response was required given the legs the Jamie Oliver hit piece generated. But, this is a warning to all food manufacturers: you may be next. Your product may be “slimed,” given a disgusting name and the chemicals and processes used may be fodder for an attention hungry entertainer or reporter (not sure of the difference these days). You’d better be ready for a massive effort to counter the fear mongering and outrage-hyping that is certain to come about other food products in the very near future.