Why Beef Products, Inc. Was Blindsided By Jaime Olivier, ABC News, Social Media & The Pink Slime Epidemic
Today ABC News ran a follow up segment to its reporting on Beef Products, Inc.and the extra-lean ground beef product it markets, that Jaime Oliver coined as “Pink Slime.” Also today Beef Products Inc. (BPI), who had long been silent about the controversy stirred by Oliver on his ABC program Food_Revolution last April.
Pink Slime is a process invented by BPI that recovers and removes fat from trimmings and other parts of the cow. It does this by sending the trimmings through a centrifuge and then eliminates any chance of macrobiotic organisms existing such as e coli by treating it with an ammonia gas. Oliver in his charming British accent unleashes several profanities (which gets bleeped out for air on network television) when referring to the the resulting meat product, which gets added to extra-lean ground beef. Later he simply refers to it as Pink Slime.
To demonstrate his distaste for the product and process Oliver takes meat trimmings and pours household ammonia, complete with the skull and cross-bones on the label, onto the meat trimmings and then runs them through a meat grinder. Though he admits he doesn’t know the “formula” for the process, the demonstration is effective. In reality, however, the process used by BPI is 180 degrees from what Oliver espouses to his wide audience on national television. The demonstration is misleading and, in my opinion, unfair.
Though Oliver isn’t the first person to bring the world’s attention to BPI’s process and pink slime, but he’s certainly the most visible. The pink slime moniker was originally given to BPI’s beef by Gerald Zirnstein, a former U.S.D.A. microbiologist in a 2002 e-mail sent to his colleagues. Along with Oliver and with the help of social media and investigative reporting by ABC News, pressure mounted against major grocery chains, fast food restaurants and schools to identify and label this beef, or stop selling it altogether. This intense pressure let to the top fast-food chains and and grocery stores to decide to stop carrying the product. This week the country’s two largest grocery chains, Kroger and Safeway, announced they would stop selling the beef and Wal-Mart & Sam’s Club will give consumers a choice — meat with or without pink slime. There will be a price difference.
So today in a national press conference, BFI announced that it will temporarily close 3 of the 4 plants that make the so-called “pink slime” and offer its employees full pay for 60 days. Afterward, it believes that consumers will be educated, have a better understanding of the product and then demand will return and it will call these employees back to work.
(Re) Acting Too Late: Classic Public Relations & Social Media Fiasco
Whether or not all the fuss over this treated beef is warranted or not, this case is a perfect example of a company that underestimated the power of social media and ignored the snowballing effect it had on public opinion and its business until it was too late.
At the press conference, Regina Rother, BPI owner and wife of pink slime process inventor, Eldon Roth said it was time the company fought back. “We got to attack just the way it was generated [the awareness], and that is through that social media world,” Roth confided. “It is not a world I’m particularly familiar with,” she admitted. “I never thought I was going to have to. But it’s out there, it’s how it spread,” Roth realized. “There’s so much misinformation and all we can do is try to arm them with the facts, do it in a rational way, do it in a respectful way.”
As a major supplier of hamburger meat to the largest fast food chains and supermarkets, BPI should have mounted its attack and response long ago. Currently hundreds of jobs are at stake, and if you believe the latest media, the supply of ground beef will shrink and prices will rise.
It’s evident that BPI finally engaged the support of a PR firm and is working hard to dispel the negative perception that has grown since Oliver first poured household ammonia on meet trimmings nearly a year ago. For a company that has a stellar safety record in food processing and according to consumer and industry experts and watch associations, runs the cleanest plants in the business, it’s too bad that BPI didn’t see this coming.
This is a perfect case-study example of a business not prepared and nor engaged in social business and social media. I’m not sure if BPI will ever fully recover or if its employees will return to work any time soon. I do know that last April it should have started an integrated social media and PR program.
Seven Ways Social Media Messages Could Have Helped Beef Products Inc.— A Year Ago*
- YouTube. Establish a YouTube Channel and several layers of video content including:
– Engaging fun video program series that is people oriented that focuses on product safety and health benefits of reducing fat content in meat
– Produce a very basic science class exploration of its patented process that produces pink slime
– Create a documentary film that enlists third-party experts from the fields of academia, science, industry and government
– Reposition the name Pink Slime and rebrand it as enhanced or safety meat or something that focuses on the benefit (safe and healthy), not the process. (Note: BPI did create a YouTube channel but content to address the current crisis was first posted_just_two_weeks_ago, or nearly a year after Oliver’s program aired on ABC.)BPI or industry insiders coined a rather unfriendly term for the product as “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB)
- Build Trust. Open Up. Extend a public and open invitation to Jaime Oliver, other culinary stars, the media and influential food bloggers to visit its factory. Focus on the safety benefits of its ammonia gas process and highlight chemical differences between it and what Jaime Oliver used and demonstrated. It’s likely that Oliver would not accept the invitation, but the opportunity to talk to bloggers, media and other highly visible chefs would have provided significant content to distribute through major social networks. Also, invite industry watch-guard groups, bring them to the factories, demonstrate the process. Build trust and be open.
- Take Chances. Challenge the experts. Since Oliver says pink slime is not beef, challenge scientists, chefs and others to test and compare. Drive interest through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
- Be positive, not negative. Offensive, not defensive. Focus on positive messages. Safe meat is healthier meat. Over the past several years there have been a number of highly visible food recalls related to sanitary and other conditions. If true, focus on track record and compare against other industry recalls and bouts with bacteria including chicken, eggs and cheese—have processes developed by BPI help control potentially lethal problems stemming from Mad Cow disease, e coli, bird flu or others? If the safety record of BPI is clean and perfect, it must take this message and and use it as an advantage. Instead of defensive communications, it must remain positive and highlight consumer benefits. Note: Just two months ago BPI posted its first video (that I can identify) on YouTube. It tried to address this message, but it ignored the Oliver problem and instead tried to focus on safety. This video was rather sterile, academic and not interesting or engaging.
- Blog. BPI should have used its own blog and blogs of key employees to communicate in a voice that it otherwise cannot use in traditional corporate PR — like its current campaign. It could have called attention to the inaccuracies, misinformation and the problems with the Oliver and ABC reporting. Through blog it could counter the effect of mounting public opinion without appearing defensive. It should have created micro sites to communicate key messages about the quality of the beef, health and safety messages and address any inaccuracies in reporting and opinion through fact checking and polling.
- Visible Commenting. It could have established a comment program allowing it to address false information and calling attention to content that propogates misinformation—blogs, YouTube videos and major media outlet websites.
- Engage Locals & Employees. Show that BPI is community focused and get them to admit that they work with BPI and know the process inside out and communicate the fact they feed their family and children Pink Slime enhanced meat without fear or worry.
Sure, this is all in hindsight. However, if BPI had its eyes and ears on social networks and observing the social media activity about its company, it would have spotted a trend and could have implemented a number of these social media tactics to counter the misinformation, negativity and barrage that has occurred.
Learn Crisis PR & Social Media From Apple
In other words, it could have attacked the problem inasmuch as Apple did with the mounting attack on workers, conditions and human rights violations that were lodged against it by Mike Daisy and in a series of articles in the New York Times.
Disclaimer. I am no expert on pink slime, BPI or the process invented by the company. The purpose of this post is to highlight classic errors made by a company caught in a crisis. Without a handle on social media, networks and its public affairs, BPI is suffering from its own communications negligence. Also, I have no opinion on BPI products. I haven’t had a hamburger or consumed ground beef in more than six months.