The Scottish salmon industry came under attack on 9 January 2004 when a report by the University of Albany in New York state claimed that salmon farmed in Europe were contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals, and should be eaten no more than three times a year. The salmon industry has a retail value of around £700m and accounts for nearly 40 per cent of all Scottish food exports, plus 6,500 jobs, so quality assurance body Scottish Quality Salmon (SQS) immediately launched a crisis management campaign.
To rebut the allegations and put the report in context with research conducted by SQS and advice from the Food Standards Agency (FSA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organisation (WHO) and the EU. To reassure consumers, supermarkets and fishmongers, and highlight the health benefits of salmon.
Strategy and Plan
In anticipation of an environmental-based attack, SQS's PR team had a contingency crisis management campaign planned with retained PR agency Chrome Consulting. While SQS headquarters in Scotland fielded media calls and handled interview requests, London-based Chrome Consulting publicised the SQS response in statements to international newswires.
Scottish salmon is heavily exported to France, Japan and the US. The team liaised with international organisations such as the FSA, FDA, WHO and the EU to advise them of the SQS line, and sent copies of press statements to all MSPs, MEPs and appropriate civil service departments. A total of 46,000 statements were issued worldwide.
Copies of the report and the SQS response were sent to all SQS members, supermarket contacts and wholesalers, followed up with consumer leaflets explaining what SQS saw as the report's inaccuracies. Press releases were also sent to the trade press.
On the morning of the report's publication in Science, a press release detailing its findings was sent to major media outlets, and within minutes SQS was being asked to comment on it.
Due to its scientific and technical nature, the team decided that SQS scientific adviser Dr John Watson would best explain any flaws in its argument. 'He could break down the claims into laymen's terms and defend our point of view in a way people could understand,' said SQS communications director Julie Edgar. Independent research was used to rebut the report's evidence and the team emphasised that independent watchdogs, such as the FSA, FDA and WHO, agreed with SQS, as well as 'foodie' celebrities such as Jamie Oliver and Clarissa Dickson Wright.
The organisation also gave salmon farmers advice on handling local and national TV and newspaper interviews and invited journalists on farm visits.
Measurement and Evaluation
The crisis generated 280 stories in the national and regional press and was broadcast on 150 radio and TV programmes. All the national broadsheets, together with The Sun, covered the story, while The Scotsman put it on the front page twice.
According to Edgar, more than half the coverage was positive from the outset, rising to more than 80 per cent. The BBC and The Guardian emphasised the 'salmon scare', but The Independent and The Times covered the SQS view. A week after the report, The Scotsman ran the headline 'Salmon scare report was flawed and biased' (16 January), and news agency AFP quoted SQS in its headline 'Salmon cancer study "deliberately misleading"' (9 January).
Sainsbury's press office claimed that sales increased by nine per cent in the week after the report came out, while Safeway recorded no dramatic increase or decrease in sales or prices.
'The initial crisis has come to an end, but now we are tailoring our communication strategies to specific audiences who may have been put off buying salmon,' said SQS communication executive Ken Hughes.
On 8 February, the FSA issued a statement claiming: 'The levels of dioxins and PCBs found in this study are in line with those that have previously been found by the FSA, and are within safety levels set by the WHO and the European Commission.'
Journalists had mixed reactions to SQS's handling of the crisis. 'All I received from SQS was a circular press release and my calls weren't returned,' said The Guardian Scotland editor Stephen Khan. But James Reynolds, environment correspondent for The Scotsman, said: 'SQS coped admirably and the PR team was very helpful. I was given access to scientific consultants, the chief executive and producers.'