Werner Linders at Sealed Air

Listening and Responding Through Social Media

Last Friday I had the distinct opportunity of hosting a session at the Global Food Safety Conference in London on the growing influence of social media on corporate-consumer communications in food safety and other industries. Diversey is a partner to the conference’s main organizer, the Global Food Safety Initiative, which every year brings together more than 600 food safety specialists from more than 40 countries to discuss the trends and issues impacting food safety. Many of the world’s leading manufacturer’s of food and beverage products are in attendance.

Joining me for the session were Robbie Vorhaus, internationally recognized management consultant and crisis communication expert, and Jean-Jacques Vandenheede, senior retail industry analyst for ACNielsen Europe specializing in mapping the changes that affect the grocery retailing industry.

We had a very interesting dialogue and discussion, which began with a review of a well-known food outbreak case study in the United States – when a huge amount of attention was focused across multiple channels in a compressed timeframe – and offered some examples of best practice responses to food borne illness and contamination.

In January 2009, after five people had died and more than 400 people had fallen ill due to salmonella contamination, the Peanut Corporation of America issued a recall for products made over the previous six months. The recall was later extended to over 400 consumer products made in the previous two years.

What made this particular case study unique was the significant spike in attention it drew in the social media universe. Consumers used a variety of social media channels to discuss and voice opinion about the recall. The FDA Peanut Butter Recall widget was used 1.4 million times in 9 days, and appeared on more than 5,000 different websites. FDA’s Peanut Butter Recall blog received over 14,000 total page views within a month of the recall announcement.

Because the peanuts processed by the Peanut Corporation of America were sold to many food companies for use in various products, major consumer brand companies reacted to the outpouring of opinion in different ways. Some used the opportunity to engage with consumers in unprecedented, highly-transparent communications. Unlike many previous recalls, companies notresponsible for contaminated products also used social media to protect their brands from negative association.

Our panel of social media experts offered some interesting perspectives on this case study and provided some good lessons for everyone – corporations and consumers – about the role of this growing media channel in food safety discussions. Here are a few highlights of their comments:

Jean-Jacques Vandenheede pointed out that to have real credibility in a crisis a company should have an evergreen presence, “sharing examples of positive things going on with the product, so you’re more credible when things are in crisis.”

Robbie Vorhaus: “If you’re a market driven company, social media is a tool to listen. You want to listen. You may not always like what you hear. But if you’re intent is to grow and be a market leader, you need to be willing to take the risk.”

Jean-Jacques: “This is a learning zone for everyone. It’s new for everybody. It’s new for us, for companies and users. We’re going to have to see over the next couple of years how this will evolve and no one is sure yet.”

Robbie: “We have not been used to communicating this way as corporations. Over time, the conversation will become more flowing and two-way.” 

Jean-Jacques: “If you, as a company, as a brand, follow your heart and tell your story, you can change the world.”

You can view slides related to the case study presented here:  http://scr.bi/SMediaGFSC

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