Gulf seafood industry pushes food safety

The industry is using PR and marketing to spread messages in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The seafood industry is turning to PR and marketing to spread several messages in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Promoting the main fact that the seafood in stores and restaurants is safe to eat, seafood organizations are also encouraging consumers to continue to purchase seafood in an effort to keep the markets open.

"We know these images, every day for 50-something days, are killing us," says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. "It's really hurting our brand at a national level."

The Louisiana Board is leading the seafood industry outreach, as it has been most affected, with 30% of the coastline closed to fishing. It launched its own website, LouisianaSeafoodNews.com, to post news stories about the spill and how it is affecting waters. It is also on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

The Florida Bureau of Seafood and Aquaculture Marketing is still promoting the message that Florida waters are open for fishing and harvesting, says Paul Balthrop, management review specialist for the Bureau.

Part of the communications strategy involves its website, which features an open letter from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. The Bureau has also set up a hotline that shares updates.

Even as crude oil washes up on shore in Florida, Martin May, a management review specialist for the Bureau, says the communications “hasn't changed,” but notes that everything is on a minute-by-minute basis.

“Our latest report is that no Florida state waters are closed,” he says. “We believe Florida seafood is safe.” He adds that the Division of Food Safety is ramping up in case more food safety testing is needed.

The Texas Department of Agriculture has also been communicating that its seafood is not contaminated, says Bryan Black, assistant commissioner for communications. The department is employing traditional media relations and direct outreach to consumers via grocery stores and restaurants.

The Department has created posters and informational packets for retailers and restaurants to distribute, and is organizing product sampling and demonstrations in grocery stores throughout the summer. It is also working with the Texas Department of State Health Services, to reassure consumers that the state's seafood is safe.

"We need to make sure our message is crystal clear," Black says.

Bill Layden, partner at food-focused PR agency FoodMinds, notes the importance of having credible organizations, like health services organizations, partner with the seafood industry to spread their messages.

"That would mean a combination of government and health organizations, and people that consumers will most listen to, like chefs and retailers," Layden adds. "The industry needs to tell a better story to help consumers understand in clear, simple, straight talk, about the value of what seafood will do for them."

The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board is working with chefs, such as Louisiana chef John Besh, on media outreach and messaging, and bringing in famous chefs like Paula Deen for fundraisers. It has a long-standing relationship with Shea Communications in New York, and brought on News Group Net to help with the website and Valence for social media, Smith says.

The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board petitioned BP for funds at the start of the disaster, and was granted $2 million, which it has used for outreach. Texas and Florida have yet to receive funding for marketing and promotion of seafood, and so far have handled PR internally.

Louisiana's Board also turned to the National Fisheries Institute to serve as the lobbying arm, working in Washington to communicate how the crisis is impacting fisherman specifically.

"There is an impact on both the natural resource and the human resource in the region," says Gavin Gibbons, director of media relations for the National Fisheries Institute. "While your average consumer is not going to see a shortage of seafood and your average consumer is not going to see a tremendous price hike in seafood, there is a very real human impact going on in the Gulf and it's their very livelihoods that are at stake right now."

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