Meat industry scrambles to respond to mad cow frenzy

WASHINGTON: Meat-industry trade groups were scurrying during the recent holiday season to coordinate key messages and media lists as they responded to reports of mad cow disease rearing its head in the Western US.

WASHINGTON: Meat-industry trade groups were scurrying during the recent holiday season to coordinate key messages and media lists as they responded to reports of mad cow disease rearing its head in the Western US.

"We're having to use a triage approach" to answering media calls, said Janet Riley, SVP of public affairs with the American Meat Institute (AMI), a processor group. Riley said she has been returning calls to media outlets with the largest reach first, and acknowledged that she couldn't have returned all the calls she received. The volume of calls "was like nothing I have ever seen," she admitted.

While AMI handled the media crush without the use of external PR support, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) worked with Burson-Marsteller, which regularly does consumer PR for the association, said Sara Goodwin, associate director of PR.

PR staffs at both the AMI and the NCBA worked through the Christmas weekend answering media calls. Riley allowed NBC News to come to her home on Christmas Day where she commented on the situation. The NBC crew also taped her preparing beef for dinner in an effort to demonstrate her faith in the safety of the beef supply, although that footage didn't air, she said.

One challenge for the various associations was reaching the right reporters covering the outbreak. The Christmas holiday meant that many regular food reporters were on vacation, so media lists had to be updated to reflect new contact names and e-mail addresses, Riley noted.

The US Department of Agriculture held daily press briefings on its investigation regarding the infected cow, which was found in Washington state.

The cattlemen also decided to hold technical briefings for the press each day after the USDA conference, Goodwin said, while the AMI held teleconferences to answer reporters' questions.

Key message points the industry was stressing revolved around the safety of the US beef supply and the extent of efforts underway to track down how the disease reached US shores, Goodwin said. Her association was also conducting a survey to see how news of the outbreak was impacting consumer opinions. Early indications were that US beef sales were not being affected.

PR firms with food clients were closely monitoring the situation.

Edelman revived a weekly newsletter it had done several years ago called Mad Cow Monitor, looking at media coverage of the topic, said Mary Earley, SVP and director of media analysis at StrategyOne, Edelman's Washington, DC research operation.

"The intensity of coverage is increasing, and we think it will continue to [do so]," she said.

Food PR pros also agreed that coverage of the issue would only grow once media outlets are back to full staff after the new year begins.

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