Where's the beef? The keys to calming a panicked population

This month, I'll shift from internal management to issues management, and our case study comes straight from the past few weeks' headlines:

This month, I'll shift from internal management to issues management, and our case study comes straight from the past few weeks' headlines:

Day after day, we've seen pictures of Koreans jamming the streets to protest the lifting of a ban on US beef imports.

The protests were inflamed when the US ambassador insulted Koreans by saying they were ignoring what science knows about mad cow disease, fear of which underlay the import ban. The ambassador apologized under pressure the next day, but the damage was done.

He should have known better. Similar US lectures to Koreans (and Japanese) in 2003, when mad cow was first discovered in the US, went over just as badly and contributed to the imposition of import bans that cost the industry an estimated $3 billion annually.

This five-year saga is but one example of a scenario we've also seen play out recently in products as diverse as baby bottles and tomatoes: A claim is made that your product threatens your customers' health. You sincerely believe that the public reaction is exaggerated or entirely unsupported by scientific data, and you don't want to say or do anything that will undermine your position in the inevitable lawsuits. But neither do you want to appear callous and lose markets, possibly forever.

Do you cave? Or is there a more effective way? Here's what we've learned from these episodes:

First, don't talk as if you know everything. Condescending lectures don't win customers, here or abroad.

Second, where health is at stake, the public will demand extra margins of safety.

As an interested party, you are less credible than independent medical and scientific experts. A science-based argument for restraint must be bulletproof and from a respected source. If you've funded the research, disclose it. And remember: Smart, savvy companies don't wait or argue... they act.

Cost-effective prevention may lie in going a little further than science requires. For example, critics of the US' response to mad cow argue that the extra steps the industry had resisted (and ultimately had to take anyway after the crisis broke) would have been much cheaper than the market losses. If you are a senior communications executive with a seat at the policy table and your company is considering its response to what seems like a costly proposed regulation or other safeguard, make sure your colleagues weigh the potential costs of compliance against the potential loss of an entire market.

If prevention fails, and you respond to a media-driven and politically charged crisis, you can help your cause by empathizing with customers' anxiety - no matter how silly you think it is - and with those who may have suffered genuine harm, all without conceding liability.

We all know our customers make their purchase decisions emotionally, not scientifically. When they believe their health is at risk, don't expect them to change.

Bob Feldman is CEO of Feldman & Partners, a communications management consulting firm. He can be reached at bob@feldmanandpartners.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate comms function.

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