The business of food has changed. That isn’t just the opinion of people who work in it, but also the evidence of the way consumers now prepare, think about and share their food experiences. Influenced by diets and allergies and access to information, people are invested in the choices they make about food. In many ways this is good, but it can also be a challenge, especially for companies navigating this changing consumer approach to food. At a recent Greater Kansas City Public Relations Society event, David Eaheart of Seaboard Foods shared his perspective on “Bacon & other tips: When chronic issues become crisis”. As the 4th largest pork processor, Seaboard has had to evolve quickly, both its corporate culture and its consumer outreach, to sometimes defend, and other times develop, its brand with consumers. During his presentation Eaheart laid out just how they did that, here are the takeaways:
Now, more than ever, consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced. The challenge, according to Eaheart, is once they find out they don’t like it, especially when it comes to protein. “People don’t like to think about how pigs become pork chops,” says Eaheart. This rise in food activism in articles, blog posts, and videos isn’t just prevalent among the fanatics, but also among the more passive foodies. Activists are no longer relying on letters or word-of-mouth, they’ve gotten smarter. As a traditional company, founded on Japanese standards, Seaboard was usually quiet on matters. They believed if they did things well and did the right thing they didn’t have to talk about themselves. Yet, no matter how hard the company tried to combat the negativity around their industry, chronic issues kept popping up. To deal with these, Eaheart shared 3 tips:
Tip 1: In the Frying Pan
Historically, the consumer was always right; but now, those consumer demands may not be what is best for them or for the business, said Eaheart. To combat the demands, a company must determine what it dreads. It must determine what is the concept that makes it most uncomfortable. Then, it has to be ready to be transparent about those issues, confronting the criticisms head on while standing up for what it believes is right without antagonizing.
Tip 2: Think Bacon
Bacon evokes powerful feelings, whether breakfast at home surrounded by family, or excitement around a new recipe. Emotions help us connect in a variety of ways, says Eaheart. People know, feel and do based on emotions, but those emotions also help us get motivated and take actions. If a company can’t connect with the people it is trying to communicate with, the message doesn’t even have a chance at taking hold.
Tip 3: Set the Table
If you think about the good meals you have had and juxtapose them against the great meals you have had, what’s the difference? According to Eaheart, the difference is the great meal involves people. Companies need to use people to tell their story and show the faces of the organization. This helps people connect and believe in the stories they are being told.
Yet, with these three tips in place, chronic issues still become crises sometimes. To combat those times, Seaboard Foods has a standard approach: Activate, Gather, Tell & Leverage Relationships. The first step of Activate is happening all the time. Employees are watching for unusual activities and making sure to communicate any challenges that arise. During the Gather stage, a standard list of questions about what is happening is referenced, including digging into the details of any situation and using multiple departments’ contributions to start the investigation. The Tell stage involves acknowledging the concern, accepting responsibility, adding context and aligning the language to communicate with internal personnel and consumers in a uniform way. (Interesting note: Eaheart said based on their research, Seaboard found out consumers prefer the term “pig farmer” to “pork producer” when referencing the company. It sounded less big and corporate.) The hardest part of the Tell stage is the accepting responsibility portion; admitting not everything is perfect and improvements may need to be made. During this stage, once the story is revealed internally, it is then time to communicate before the crisis breaks externally. Communicating before the information is public gives consumers the sense the company owns its challenges instead of running from them. Finally, Leveraging Relationships with community, media, industry & internal personnel gives credence to the information.
In the end, Eaheart focused on the variety of things he’s learned while dealing with chronic issues before they become crisis. Not surprisingly, many of the lessons are built around the building of relationships, whether within the organization or with media partners and the community. Another large facet is a company owning what they believe is right, being smart about the battles they pick and accepting that what’s best for the company may not always be the most desired by the consumer. Lastly, employee morale must be a focus for an organization. When situations go badly, frustration runs high, but a culture of listening and acceptance goes a long way in getting people to work together toward a common goal, the most critical piece for any company dealing with crisis.
*All slides within the body of the post were taken from David Eaheart’s GKCPRSA presentation on July 22, 2015