FDA go-ahead not end of spinach crisis

Industry groups shift to post-crisis strategies in an effort to minimize the long-term impact of E. coli scare

Industry groups shift to post-crisis strategies in an effort to minimize the long-term impact of E. coli scare

The recent E. coli scare that struck the spinach industry last month threw spinach farmers and vendors into a state of full-blown crisis communications. But now, as the Food and Drug Administration has narrowed the source of the tainted spinach and deemed the leafy green safe for consumption, it means a whole new wave of communications for the industry and companies affected by the initial recall.

With the threat of E. coli from spinach gone for now, industry groups are scrambling to communicate effectively so that the recent scare does not have a prolonged impact on sales of the product. Those who talked with PRWeek still weren't at liberty to disclose their concrete plans, but did discuss how they will go about their communications.

"[The FDA announcement is] the signal that the industry was waiting for," says Gene Grabowski, VP at Levick Strategic Communications, which represents the United Fresh Produce Association and a produce company he declined to name. "What we have is some kind of assurance that at least we know more. That knowledge, even if it isn't too specific, is in and of itself relieving."

A reduction in consumer anxiety paves the way for what Grabowski refers to as a "teachable moment" for the industry.

"Now attention to [the] industry is high. Attention to produce and spinach in particular is high," he says. "People are interested in learning more about the product, its nutritional value, how to safely prepare it, how to make sure it's clean."

"We've got to assure the consumer that what they're eating is safe." says Ann Schmidt-Fogarty, manager of the news and communications division at the California Farm Bureau Foundation (CFBF). "We have to double and triple our efforts to ensure that."

For CFBF, that means supporting the news about safe spinach with scientific research about the conditions under which spinach is grown and washed.

"We have to walk our talk," says Schmidt-Fogarty. "It's more than just sending out messages. It's doing what's right."

George Clarke, director of crisis and issues management at Burson-Marsteller, says that all parties involved must make sure to address the post-crisis period with as much care as the immediate crisis.

"The most frequent post-crisis pitfall for industries or companies or associations is a temptation to declare an end to the crisis prematurely and go back to business as usual," he says. "We see the recovery phase as two distinct periods: reassurance and recovery."

Indeed, even with an "OK" from the FDA that most spinach is safe to eat, it is important for organizations and companies associated with the initial recall to not move forward too quickly in their communications strategies.

"One of our priorities is to not stand on an aircraft carrier and post 'mission accomplished' behind us," says Timothy Chelling, VP of communications for the Western Growers Association (WGA). "A crisis like this is an extremely serious one.
You have to keep in mind that anything can happen, and you do not want to sit back and relax and put an artificial end to the crisis simply because certain things have developed."

WGA's one-man communications department is still working to communicate not only to media and consumers, but also to its members about how the organization is involved in safety efforts.

Individual companies' communications efforts during this time will likely mirror those of industry organizations, but with more of a focus on local market, says Levick's Grabowski. And while the FDA's most recent announcement is not a signal that the crisis is completely over, it does shift the communications mode, he adds.

"When you're in an immediate crisis, [the mode] is about two-thirds defensive because there are a lot of accusations, a lot of experts, a lot of uncertainty," Grabowski says. "Now we're able to go to almost all offensive in terms of getting our messages out
in an environment where people are receptive to them."

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