As consumers' effect on supply chain grows, so must PR's role

This week's feature on consumer companies -in particular, food and beverage producers - embracing corporate social responsibility practices is a timely one.

This week's feature on consumer companies -in particular, food and beverage producers - embracing corporate social responsibility practices is a timely one.

As the feature went to press, Burger King announced a policy change on its food-supply chain, stating it would buy pork and eggs only from suppliers that did not confine the livestock in crates and cages and would accept only animals that were killed in certain ways.

Of course, your average consumer would rather not think about how an animal is killed for consumption when facing the juicy array of burger photos displayed above the fast-food menu. But outside the ground zero of slavering hunger - the fast-food line - these consumers do often, it turns out, give a damn. And Burger King is listening. As is Wolfgang Puck, the Austrian chef who brought tuna- and mango-topped pizza to America, who has similarly promised responsibly sourced ingredients.

Burger King has said this move was executed in order to be ahead of consumer trends, and, indeed, it was consumer pressure (as well as animal-advocacy groups, of course), that elicited earlier moves by fast-food companies, including Burger King, to improve animal-welfare standards.

The information revealed in this week's feature, and in the current Burger King and Puck stories, proves beyond any doubt that companies are seeing the requirement to put the customer at the beginning of the supply chain, or the R&D process, not at the end. Too often, food companies are being called on the health and responsibility claims they boast, that are transparently the result of digging out any research on the component ingredients of a long-existing product and fashioning that into a spurious brag.

A somewhat amusing example of consumer reaction to this practice can be seen across the Pacific in New Zealand, where two science students for a school project successfully proved that the blackcurrant-flavored soft drink Ribena contained no detectable vitamin C - a claim on which GlaxoSmithKline's Ribena had been basing its advertising for a very long time. A district judge fined GSK, which had to run corrective ads.

When high school kids are going out of their way to call a company on its food claims, it is clear the world has moved past NGO and advocacy-group pressure. That consumers are now experts in how to pressure companies into action is an unquestionable reality, and now is a better time than ever for PR departments to ensure they are at the center of the communication.

A Wall Street Journal article last week described how airline customers were copying the Department of Transportation into complaint letters to accelerate their enquiry. But many other articles about how to greedily extract money from companies describe how CCing a PR person can yield even better results. Manipulative, maybe, but it's clearer than ever that the communications experts need to play a key role at every stage of the supply chain, from product sourcing to dealing with after-the-purchase feedback.

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