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Brand Protection in a Social Media Age
by Adrian Moss and Don Hsieh
Today, everyone can be a global publisher, using text, images, and videos to comment on their experiences with companies—good or bad. In the era of social media, comments can easily be shared with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other consumers, just by hitting send. Once a comment is out there, it opens the door for other consumers to comment on similar experiences. Depending on the weight of the issue, and amount of visibility the comment had, the company in question may start “trending.” Since these discussions are open to the public, a journalist who monitors for trending topics could decide there is value in reporting on the topic, raising even more awareness of the situation and spreading the “buzz.”
Global Food Supply Chain Meets Global Social Networks
At the same time social media interactions are impacting consumers’ decisions, the food supply chain is growing increasingly global. According to FDA data, between 15 and 20 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. is imported from other countries. Furthermore, 50 percent of all fruits and 80 percent of seafood eaten in the U.S. comes from outside the country. An inherent risk of any global supply chain is of course the threat of adulteration, contamination, and counterfeiting. For example, of the 168 product recalls that occurred during the first half of 2013 for the food and drug categories, 138 were for food and consumer healthcare products.
The power of social media and the 24-hour news cycle enable consumers to hear about food adulteration cases faster than ever before. Food companies need to be mindful that news-worthy stories, especially when they negatively affect the safety of consumers, will spread quickly and make it nearly impossible for companies to react to negative publicity in a timely manner. If, for example, a food fraud incident results in a recall, the impact on the brand can directly affect product sales. According to Which?, a U.K. news and advice website, an independent survey revealed consumer trust in the food industry has dropped by 24 percent since the 2013 U.K. horsemeat scandal broke. Furthermore, 30 percent of shoppers were buying less processed meat at the time of the survey and 24 percent were buying fewer ready meals with meat in them, or were choosing vegetarian options. With the number of consumer product-fraud incidents growing, consumers are on higher alert when it comes to food fraud, and are less likely to forgive companies that have put their food at risk.
Numerous case studies in the food industry show a crisis situation that gained a lot of attention on social media is made worse when that brand loses valuable time at the get-go deciding how to react and respond to the situation. The potential speed of social media means preplanning is essential, as is monitoring the reaction to any responses made by the company online.
The What If?
So what happens when the integrity of the food supply chain is compromised, and that issue is compounded by global social media discussion? Take the example of the 2013 horsemeat crisis. As discussed in a research report “Every Day Low Price, Every Day High Risk: Protecting the Integrity of Food and Drug Supply Chains,” from SCM World vice president of content, Barry Blake, Google Trends illustrates the course of online conversations around the subject well with a graph shown at right “featuring a year-over-year flat line until the beginning of 2013 where the line suddenly spikes upward. It peaks in February only to return to a near flat line by June.”
The Google Trends graph corresponds to the onset of the horsemeat scandal in Ireland and the U.K. earlier this year, and the subsequent dissipation of interest in the event. As far as the effects of the event on the brand, the day following the announcement that horsemeat was found in beef products sold by the British multinational retailer Tesco, its market value dropped by €360 million or $487 million. This figure is striking, yet doesn’t even begin to quantify the overall impact to the Tesco brand. According to the company’s chief executive, Philip Clarke, June 2013 sales reported down due to the crisis, with a “small but discernible impact“ on sales of frozen and chilled foods at their convenience stores.
The costs associated with this kind of crisis include recall costs, revenue loss, and legal costs for damage to health or life and regulatory fines. Ultimately, complications in any supply chain impact a brand’s reputation and require time and investment to rebuild trust among customers, partners, and the general public.
Several examples of food crises and the role social media played throughout illustrate the importance of both a proactive food defense plan and proactive social media practices. The 2013 horsemeat crisis in particular supports the need to participate in social media on an ongoing basis, not just when crisis hits. This notion was confirmed with a recent incident that occurred with the U.S. yogurt company, Chobani. The brand monitors social media proactively and recently noticed a number of people commenting on its social networks that the yogurt was fizzy and the fruit seemed off. Chobani’s social media team replied to consumers on the brand’s social networks, saying they would look into the issue. As part of this investigation, the brand found a production room had experienced some issues that were previously unknown to the company, so Chobani alerted its retailers and took back batches of the yogurt. In this instance, Chobani was able to preempt the crisis—to a certain degree—by listening to consumers and reacting quickly, investigating the situation, keeping consumers in the loop, and then engaging with the distribution channel and impacting the production cycle. The organization did ultimately receive criticism on social media over the issue and the way the company handled the issue—primarily because the scale and speed of the conversation was difficult to manage—however, this only further illustrates the need for proactive planning and preparation.
The 4Ps of Brand Resilience
When it comes to food crises compounded by global social networking, there are a number of steps a brand can follow to ensure that not only is it proactively establishing a strong social media presence, but also that it is ready to react quickly, with full support from employees.
Participate in Social Media Regularly. This means developing fans, friends, and followers; creating loyalty that can serve as resiliency during a crisis. Furthermore, a brand that is active in social media is more likely to learn quickly that it is being criticized than a brand that has no online presence at all. It’s important to also track major competitors and the industry on social networks. While one brand may not be the initial focus of the comments, its reputation can be damaged simply by association with the industry. Other helpful practices including tracking and engaging with new sources. Brands should consider using the associated handles of influential media members and the hashtags industry thought leaders use so responses appear within the conversation stream or searches being made. It’s also important to comment on posts and develop a rapport with other industry professionals on social networks.
Plan Organizational Responsibilities. Taking too much time to discuss what has to be done during a fast moving and escalating social media crisis is not recommended. It is much preferred to have the chain of command, approval process, and various scenarios reviewed, agreed upon, internally published, and understood in advance so the brand’s full team is ready to react when needed.
Pre-Audit Likely Issues and Prepare Responses. Have materials pre-prepared that can be easily edited to suit the specific situation, therefore saving time, rather than creating content during a crisis. While it is not always possible to be prepared for every eventuality, most brands should already know the likely areas which could result in negative comments. Have a range of scenarios prepared with plans for which subject matter experts can be called on.
Practice. Many brands probably already have a crisis management plan prepared and run desktop exercises to ensure it is ready to activate. Include social media in this plan so it’s not brand new material to anyone on the team during a real crisis. Ensure all involved parties and periphery staff are trained on the plans and confident about executing it.
Integrating Social Media into a Food Defense Plan
There’s a remarkable parallel between social media and food defense. In both processes, when a company reacts and responds quickly, the negative brand impact is lessened. This means companies must be both proactive and diligent.
4As of Food Defense
The 4As of food defense are the core components of a proactive food defense program that delivers intelligence to help food companies and suppliers implement the preventive actions necessary to protect their brand.
Assess. A proactive social media plan requires assessing the social media channels that your customers regularly utilize to ensure you are present in those channels if a crisis develops. Similarly, a proactive food defense plan begins by conducting a vulnerability assessment of all the critical control points where food is most vulnerable to adulteration.
Access. Once those vulnerability points are identified, food defense requires allowing only authorized staff access to these critical control points to minimize vulnerability. In social media, a company needs to participate in the identified channels to minimize vulnerability.
Alert. Continuous monitoring is equally important in both food defense and social media. In food defense, the whole supply chain needs to be monitored to alert appropriate individuals of intentional and unintentional instances of food adulteration anywhere along the chain, and respond quickly to minimize public health risks. In social media, all the relevant channels need to be continually monitored so a quick response is possible before a public firestorm brews.
Audit. Finally, in food defense it is important to regularly audit procedures to determine operational and regulatory compliance to best food defense practices and provide documentation of compliance to regulators. In social media, a company needs to regularly audit compliance to the appropriateness of all social media responses, to ensure they are consistent with the company’s image and brand promise.
How can a food and beverage brand protect itself against a social media firestorm when it comes to negative experiences? The trick is to build a social media brand defense plan that integrates into a proactive food defense plan. It is imperative that food and beverage manufacturers and distributors develop a proactive food defense program that delivers continuous and comprehensive control over the integrity of their supply chain to combat intentional food adulteration. Implementing preventive controls built on actionable intelligence to protect the food supply chain is much more effective than reacting to an adulteration event after it happens. The benefits of a strong food defense strategy that incorporates social media as an element to managing business and manufacturing processes can add value and defend the brand.
Best Practices During a Crisis
In the event a food crisis and consequent social media firestorm does occur, there are several best practices a brand can follow to work toward recovering quickly and having the smallest impact possible on all involved parties. It’s important to acknowledge the issue publicly and for the brand to state what it’s doing to research and resolve the issue. Brands should also apologize unreservedly—many crises are made far worse when organizations take issue with what is being said, or how it is being said, and get into a public argument on social media. By all means brands should apply their house rules (i.e. no profanity or personal insults) but they should not censor, edit, or remove comments that they simply see as unfair. One benefit of having friends, followers, and fans is that while they can be a harsh critic, they can also be a moderating voice to unfair and unjustified comments by the online “mob.”
Brands should always be honest and open, and sound human (as opposed to formal, or using legal jargon) when discussing the crisis publicly. If possible, brands in a crisis should consider creating a quick video from the chief executive officer or head of the organization to make a statement within several hours of the issue going public. Websites and microsites should also be updated as appropriate, and most importantly, brands must ensure they’re keeping employees, key stakeholders, and the consumer consistently updated. When it comes to food defense and social media, it’s all about communication!
Moss is the director for Focus Business Communications. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hsieh is director of commercial and industrial marketing for Tyco Integrated Security. Reach him at email@example.com.