Michael Bush spoke to three key players involved in the pet-food recall of earlier this year about their roles in the crisis, obstacles faced, and more
Michael Bush: Have you faced a recall/crisis situation like this before?
Duane Ekedahl (president of the Pet Food Institute [PFI]): We called this the perfect storm because of the particular way this product recall unfolded. It was a co-manufacturer that makes products for a lot of companies, so instead of just one company and one product, it was one company and hundreds of products.
A misidentification of the substance causing the problem compounded consumer confusion.
The final component that made this unusual was that it wasn't just a one-shot deal. As the product was tracked through the system, it affected other companies, and it continued for weeks. The magnitude of this was a real shock to us.
Gene Grabowski (SVP at Levick Strategic Communications, which represents the PFI): Two things made it different. It wasn't like spinach or Tylenol, where you just pull it off the shelves and two weeks later you re-stock. These were selective recalls, so you have some product remaining on the shelf that's safe and some being removed. That creates confusion.
Then there was the rolling nature of the recall. [With] one recall after the other, it was a series of a dozen. That creates further confusion because you're always looking for that moment where they can breathe a sigh of relief and say: "OK, we had a crisis, but now it's finished. I can get on with my life."
When the recalls keep occurring, it frustrates and confuses consumers. Trying to get your message out in an atmosphere where consumers grow more cynical and confused every day is very difficult.
Bush: What were the biggest challenges you encountered?
Ekedahl: Reassuring the public in light of the numerous recalls that 99% of the products on the shelves were still safe.
Grabowski: Because it's an active industry with a lot of expert spokespeople, we had to obtain consensus for a lot of what we did. That happens when you have a crisis that cuts across the industry. You have to get approval for materials, ads, and letters to the editor. That's always more difficult when you're going industrywide, rather than doing it for a single company.
The other challenge is that when consumers become cynical, [so do] the media. Dealing with cynical reporters who are resistant to your messages and reject them because they want to hear another message [is difficult]. They want to hear that the industry is devastated.
Bush: What surprised you most?
Alice Nathanson (chair of the public affairs committee for the PFI and external affairs/PR director for Masterfoods USA): As an industry, I think we - representatives from pet food companies, all of whom are competitors - did a good job of coming together, but we have been working together very regularly to develop solutions and programs to get through this.
Bush: What's your opinion of the media's handling of the situation?
Ekedahl: There were specific articles that were troublesome and bloggers who were off the charts. But in total, I came away with a respect for the probing nature and overall honesty of the questions.
The media were very helpful in our getting the message out in terms of the nature and dimension of the problem and the fact that it's being addressed. The questioning was impressively penetrating on technical subjects, but there were also erroneous reports that were misleading to consumers.
Grabowski: I really don't have an opinion on the way the media handles things, having been a reporter myself for 12 years. I know the difficulties they're under. I've learned over the years to become patient with the oversimplifications of the media and [writers'] urgency to create dramatic stories. So I take that as an occupational fact of life. I don't get frustrated; I deal with it.
Bush: How many phone calls were you getting?
Ekedahl: In the first two weeks, [they came] as fast as we could answer them, maybe 10 to 12 a day from very recognizable national and international media outlets.
Bush: What were they asking?
Ekedahl: It changed as the situation did. First, it was, "Why did it take you so long?" Then, questions came up about co-manufacturing: "Why is this company making product for so many other companies, and what does that mean?"
Bush: From a communications perspective, what is the most important thing to do in situations like this?
Grabowski: When excitement is rising, there is a lot of confusion, and the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have its work done [yet], we must get out there... and tell consumers we are on the job.
After the FDA starts narrowing things down, we have to show we're bringing it into focus and we understand the problem. That alleviates a lot of consumer anxiety.
Last, when you reach that teachable moment when consumers are willing to listen and their anxiety level has dropped, even though the crisis is still rolling forward, you can start talking about what the surveys are showing, and the industry's efforts, while bringing forward your experts to talk about how to feed your pets properly. Now we're telling consumers, "Here are the facts. Here's how the industry and consumers handled this issue."
The end of that phase... becomes a business story [all about how] the industry is faring.
Timeline of the industry's response to the pet food recall
March 16 Initial recall announced by Menu Foods of certain canned "in gravy" products; PFI notifies members and develops key talking points, putting scope of recall into perspective.
March 17 PFI issues release on recall.
March 21 PR working group formed by PFI to develop materials and manage public communications on recall.
March 23 New York Commissioner of Agriculture announces finding of aminopterin in pet food, which is later disproved. PFI issues release reassuring consumers.
March 27 PFI hires Levick Strategic Communications.
March 30 FDA announces finding of melamine in the pet food ingredient wheat gluten, as well as finished pet food products; confirms wheat gluten was imported from China. Numerous recalls follow.
April 6 PFI's initial survey finds consumers think pet foods are safe and will continue to buy their brand.
April 12 PFI places full-page ads in The Washington Post and USA Today in the form of an open letter to consumers. PFI announces formation of the National Pet Food Commission. Ekedahl testifies before Congress on the recall.
April 16 Recalls begin related to the second contaminated ingredient.
April 26 PFI issues letter to US Trade Representative and FDA commissioner urging them to determine how melamine found its way into simple ingredients for pet food.