Butterball slow to respond to animal abuse accusations

GARNER, NC: While a video of alleged animal abuse at a Butterball turkey facility surfaced on social media channels during the holidays, the company did not make a statement for nearly a week.

GARNER, NC: While a video of alleged animal abuse at a Butterball turkey facility surfaced on social media channels during the holidays, the company did not make a statement for nearly a week.

North Carolina officials raided a Butterball turkey factory December 29 in Hoke County after animal rights group Mercy for Animals released an undercover video that showed factory workers appearing to abuse turkeys. The video, which was filmed by an activist who is said to have worked undercover at the facility for three weeks, was posted on ButterballAbuse.com and YouTube on December 23.

A number of PR professionals say the food company needs to take a more active communications stance given the crisis it faces.

“One of the challenges the company will face is managing its reputation online,” said Russ Williams, SVP of crisis and issues management at Cohn & Wolfe. “A more aggressive response strategy can help counteract some of the one-sided portrayal of the story in social media channels.”

Williams suggested that a video response from Butterball's senior leadership team would be “beneficial” even if it just reaffirmed the company's commitment to animal welfare.

The company issued a statement via its website this afternoon, December 29: “Butterball has a zero tolerance policy for any mistreatment of our birds or the failure to immediately report mistreatment of our birds by any associates. We are performing extensive internal and third-party audits as part of our own investigation. Employees found in violation of Butterball's animal welfare policies will be subject to immediate termination.”

Meanwhile, the Butterball Twitter feed and Facebook page have continued tweeting and posting turkey thawing, roasting, and other cooking tips throughout the last week without addressing the allegations. It has more than 47,000 Facebook fans and nearly 5,500 Twitter followers.

Erica Swerdlow, Midwest market leader and MD of brand marketing at Burson-Marsteller, led the crisis communications efforts for Veolia Transportation during the September 2008 Metrolink accident in Southern California that killed 25 people. She told PRWeek that Butterball needs to make a better use of its social media presence and work to engage with its consumers about this issue. Moreover, it needs to apologize, she said.

“This may just be the actions of a few people, but the company has to take responsibility for it,” Swerdlow said.

Rich Tauberman, the EVP at MWW who is leading the communications assistance for Friendly Ice Cream Corporation's Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, also said Butterball has been “a little slow” in responding to the undercover video.

“For a lot of the companies we work with, especially consumer facing companies, we're very vigilant with monitoring social media,” he said. “I would think that if something came up on YouTube on December 23 that had something that impacted Butterball, they should have known about it.”

Butterball communications representatives did not immediately return PRWeek's request for comment. Howard, Merrell & Partners confirmed it is handling crisis communications for Butterball, but declined further comment.  

Whatever the iconic Turkey brand does next, it needs to follow through on its promise and take action, noted Jack Yeo, SVP and director of issues and crisis management at MSLGroup.

“The most important thing they need to be doing now is really holding true to their word in conducting the investigation that they say they are going to conduct and do so in a transparent manner where they can report back the findings and truly eradicate the behavior that has been uncovered by this group,” Yeo explained.

Communicating the outcome with consumers will be essential for Butterball moving forward, he added.

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