Salmonella scare spurs a boost in online outreach

WASHINGTON: The investigation into a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter has companies, federal agencies, and associations focused on online communications to keep consumers informed.

WASHINGTON: The ongoing investigation into a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter has many companies, as well as federal agencies and associations, focused on online communications to keep consumers informed.

The American Peanut Council, the trade organization that represents peanut manufacturers, is working with Ogilvy PR Worldwide and Argyle Communications to educate consumers about which peanut products were recalled and which ones remain safe.

“We want to drive people to our site to get updated information,” said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council. “Food safety is our number one priority, and we need to get that information out to consumers.”

The council posted a list of products that were not recalled on its Web site – the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Web site maintains a list of recalled products. It is also reaching out to major broadcast outlets and news services to urge consumers to talk to companies about the products they use, Archer said.

Beginning January 21, the digital practice at Ogilvy started to monitor Facebook groups, comments on related YouTube videos, Twitter, and blogs, with a goal to contact the various outlets by e-mail and provide updated information and news, said Stephen Marino, SVP at Ogilvy's 360 Digital Influence practice.

News that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was investigating a salmonella Typhimurium outbreak broke in a USA Today story on January 7. On January 16, the FDA said that the likely source of the outbreak had been traced back to Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), a manufacturer of peanut butter and peanut paste which is distributed to other manufacturers as ingredients.

Burson-Marsteller was hired to help with the product recall, said George Clarke, director of crisis and issues management at the firm. He declined to give additional information.

Smucker's and ConAgra Foods, two manufacturers of peanut butter and peanut products, have also enhanced their communications strategies to reassure consumers and customers that their products remain safe.

“There's been confusion among consumers,” said Maribeth Badertscher, director of corporate communications at Smucker's, which makes the Jif and Smucker's brands.

The company added messaging to its Web site and issued a news release on January 19 to inform consumers its products were not involved in the recall and that Smucker's products are tested for the presence of salmonella.

ConAgra, which distributes the Peter Pan peanut butter brand, added information about the investigation to its Web site and branded product sites on January 10, said Stephanie Childs, director of communications at ConAgra. It also issued a news release on January 17.

For the companies whose products were affected, especially those that issued voluntary recalls because they have used PCA products, the message that some products remain safe for consumption was difficult to get out in the media.

McKee Foods Corporation voluntarily recalled two of its Little Debbie peanut butter sandwich crackers that were manufactured by The Kellogg Company, which recalled 16 of its own products.

When some local media outlets incorrectly reported that all Little Debbie products were unsafe, district sales representatives for the company hand-delivered news releases to local TV stations and newspapers, said Mike Gloekler, corporate communication and PR manager for McKee.

“It was almost like a grassroots campaign,” he said, noting that the tactic was so successful he plans to add it to the company's communications strategy. He also plans to look at online outreach tactics for the future.

“We're seeing where we could have done that better,” Gloekler said.

For the federal agencies involved, online communications were central from the start.

The CDC launched a microsite with news about the outbreak and is hosting a daily call with the FDA and the 43 affected states to shares developments, interviews, and updates on news release, said Dave Daigle, deputy director of media relations for the CDC.

The FDA has been updating its Web site several times a day and holding regular media calls to update journalists, said Stephanie Kwisnek, a spokesperson for the FDA, by e-mail. She added that the FDA had created an online searchable database where consumers could find a list of the recalled products.

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