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In our December 30, 2015, newsletter, we made our food safety predictions for 2016. That prediction was “More.” That is: more FSMA focus, more labeling issues, more recalls, more focus on Salmonella as an adulterant, more advancement in norovirus detection systems, and – the topic of this issue – more consumer awareness of food sources. We said, “Consumers want details about the food they are eating – where it came from, how it was raised, what process it went through to reach them, and what safety practices were implemented throughout. Consumers want to know that the food they are feeding their families is safe – and the high visibility of recalls is causing them to be more proactive about attaining knowledge about the source of their food.” Our last newsletter on GMO is all about the need to be transparent with information about what is in our food and the push from consumers to have that information irrespective of actual scientifically supported risk. Being proactive means both that consumers are seeking information and they are talking about food and spreading information. While this is not really new, we are seeing a continued increase for the demand for information with both bad and good news for the industry. Media and food simply go together. According to Nielsen, the general public spends an average of 5 hours a day watching TV, and most people eat 2 to 3 meals a day – and in many homes the two are done at the same time. Media and food are also similar in that we love to discuss the shows we love and hate, and the same goes for food. Think about Facebook: many of the posts are pictures of what people are eating, and many of the discussions involve recent shows, movies, and news items (true or not). It’s no wonder that this combination is both exciting and deadly and that the perfect storm for news is stories about food, especially if there is something exciting or deadly to relate. Both media and food can be intensely visual, immediate, exciting … and deadly.  So it’s not surprising that when something goes wrong, we hear about it, share it and comment on it – saying both nice, helpful things, as well as mean, detrimental things that make CEOs in boardroom shudder. And, all too often, stories are exaggerated, as people are natural exaggerators and the media feeds off blood in the water. Having come to food safety from the cutting-edge world of media myself, I have first-hand knowledge of this. I can tell you that the old saying, “When blood is spilled, money is made,” holds true with much of media as well as social media: A story that starts fairly innocently can evolve to nasty trashing of companies and their food. Knowing this doesn’t stop it; people are always hungry for food and for the latest titbit of news on a disaster – Who said what … Really? They did that? Without knowing the truth or checking the facts, the story is spread to friends, so we all can gloat over the problem in real time together. The Good News. While all this is, unfortunately true, there is a light blinking in the tunnel. A recent study from FoodThink, Evolving Trust in the Food Industry, shows that while only 1/3 of consumers think the agriculture industry and food companies are transparent, “the good news is that consumers are turning to food companies and grocers for more information because they do have an interest in learning more about the food they eat.” Consumers want trustworthy information on how their food is produced, and there has been a steady trend of consumers turning to food companies, grocers, and food retailers for information. However, they also are keeping tabs on bloggers and other social media for information. This means that, while consumer perceptions of transparency in the food industry are consistently improving, the industry needs to continue to ensure its voice is heard. Reputation is everything to a company, literally everything. So, just as you feed your customers hungry for food, you need to feed their hunger for information, feeding their desire for trustworthy information and giving them the real story. You need to create a great reputation online with your customers that is strong, two-way, and extensively shared. How? My advice is: Ask for customer reviews of products, share the reviews, thank the people sending them. Post pictures of all the good things you are doing. We are all visual these days, but we also have short attention spans (there is so much out there to see and read and watch!) So short videos and pictures are most effective, because long articles and paragraphs are rarely read all the way through. Be proactive in engagement with the media, treat them as friend not foe – invite them to visit your facility, invite them to your company picnic. Post pictures of the workforce, happy, engaged, loving the company and their work; show that you are doing the right things for your employees. Get involved in your community, contribute, donate, engage, then send pictures to your local TV stations and newspapers about what you do for the community. As we stated in our February 18 newsletter about Evolving Consumer Values, consumers increasingly consider a company’s social responsibility in their purchasing decisions. Get out there – and make it known that you are. If you get ahead of the crazy, spinning curveball of communication, it is more likely that if something bad does happen, consumers will remember the good things you have done and communicated, and the horror stories will be less critical. It’s human nature to gossip and retell the latest story, so make yours a good story and keep the headlines about your company positive ones. But remember, however much you have banked as a positive for your reputation, you can blow that investment very quickly if your communications in a crisis are not spot on. You have to be on situation fast, be genuine and caring, and take the blame if you have made mistakes. Consumers and the media hate arrogance and a vacuum of information – in the case of a vacuum, the media will certainly fill it with something likely far worse than what really happened. In today’s environment, your reputation is everything and consumers can make or break your reputation. So, knowing all that, I’ll tell you that at TAG, we are ready to assist with building and maintaining a reputation, including any unusual event that could damage a company’s reputation. Guard your reputation, it’s what is most valuable to your brand. Let us help you develop a reputation that is hard to tarnish … it’s what we do About The Acheson Group (TAG) Led by Former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods Dr. David Acheson, TAG is a food safety consulting group that provides guidance and expertise worldwide for companies throughout the food supply chain. With in-depth industry knowledge combined with real-world experience, TAG’s team of food safety experts help companies more effectively mitigate risk, improve operational efficiencies, and ensure regulatory and standards compliance.


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