Archive for January 26th, 2009

Salmonella outbreak and the movement toward online communication

January 26, 2009

This article about the salmonella outbreak (now almost 500 cases reported) demonstrates how much our crisis communication and public outreach in situations like that have shifted onto the internet. I’m particularly interested in the comment:

“We want to drive people to our site to get updated information,” said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council. “Food safety is our number one priority, and we need to get that information out to consumers.”

In this “post-media world” as I called it in 2001, we are the broadcasters. The power to communicate with individuals as well as masses is largely in our hands. It’s a huge issue for the peanut industry. The outbreak is widespread and it is virtually impossible given our short attention spans and the brief news reports to determine if the peanut butter or products containing it are safe. So the safe answer is don’t eat any of it until we find out that the outbreak is over. But that hurts the entire industry. Certainly we saw the same thing with e.coli in spinach a while back. It becomes critically important for the industry to aggressively communicate what is safe even while not downplaying at all the risks associated with tainted products (I had salmonella when I was a kid, unpleasant).

At a recent conference of government communicators I heard several presenters talk about “partnering with the media” in major risk or crisis communications situations. At the risk of offending some, when I spoke I told why I thought that was hooey. Their agenda is different than yours. It is their job to assemble and hold an audience. Yours is to get the information out. Yes, they can be helpful in that, but their agenda too often conflicts with yours. So the best answer is to use the media as much as possible to pull your audiences directly to yourself. Communicate directly whenever possible. That’s what I take from the response of the industry and major players in this situation. It’s definitely a positive step.