Issues Management 2.0: More Than a Function of Communications

by Kim Essex, Director, North American Food Practice, Ketchum Public Relations, a sub-contractor to the Beef Checkoff

Summary
How is it that we, as consumers, are at the same time blessed with the most spectacularly abundant and reliably safe food supply and fundamentally distrustful of food makers?  

This is neither an oxymoron nor the result of an ill-informed public.  

Rather, it is the result of a more informed public, who is looking beyond marketing campaigns and communications messaging and evaluating the consistencies (or inconsistencies) in what industries say and what they do.  

More often, the fractured trust in today’s food supply comes not from ”real” food crises – failures in systems, safety lapses, recalls – but from perceived inconsistencies in "say versus do.”  

Consumers are rightfully asking:  How do I trust a food maker who says one thing but does another? Or does something and says nothing (or says nothing to address the perceived inconsistency)?

Many brands are finding themselves in these cross-hairs: Chipotle, Kraft, Anheuser Busch and Kashi, to name a few.    

The beef industry has an opportunity to build trust by better aligning “say and do.” 

We need to stop thinking about what we do as issues to be managed, and rather begin evaluating new positions, practices and technologies as a 360-team of product specialists, researchers, policy experts and communicators.

Background
Ketchum Public Relations is a global communications firm with more than 60 years of food experience and more than 100 professionals in the United States alone focused on helping food companies and commodities connect with consumers and stakeholders. The firm invests in research and knowledge to help its clients meet expectations.

In 2008, 2011 and 2013, Ketchum conducted a consumer research study called Food 2020: The Consumer as CEO. In this online survey of primary food shoppers in the United States, China, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy (2013 only), Ketchum asked consumers to assume the role of CEO of a major food interest and decide what should be the company’s priorities into the future.  

The research revealed a consumer segment that looks like the typical food-involved consumer but behaves very differently. Food involved consumers are passionate about making good food choices for themselves and their families; they follow food news and trends in traditional, online and social media; they read labels and try new recipes and new restaurants.

The Food eVangelist does these things, too, but their food interests do not stop with themselves and their family. The Food eVangelist seeks information about food not only to make good food choices for him/herself but also to help you make good food choices. Food eVangelists believe – call it their mission – they have a responsibility to share their discoveries about food, drive awareness and change behavior.  Their reward: having people look to them for food information and follow them in their food behaviors.  

Unlike an activist who summarily dismisses information that is inconsistent with his or her agenda, the Food eVangelist absorbs all information. They expect and want to hear from food companies, farmers and ranchers. They will take this information and compare it with other information to draw their own conclusions. They take nothing at face value; rather, they believe their role is to reconcile the information they find, form an opinion and share that opinion with others.  

Discussion
And this is where inconsistencies, if they exist, become apparent.  
It’s not a surprise that, when it comes to food, there are conflicting information sources.  There are differing opinions and studies – good and bad science – that provide disparate pictures of the food we eat, whether that’s because the science has evolved or because an organization or person is trying to make a case for their position.
Food eVangelists acknowledge and don’t begrudge this reality. They believe everyone has their own facts, their own position. They expect food makers to have a point of view. But when they “discover” inconsistencies from food makers – an individual, a company, an industry, a trade association – their skepticism increases and this shapes their opinions, opinions they readily share.  

For example:

  • When a company or industry provides one product to domestic consumers and a different product to consumers in other countries and fails to explain why, Food eVangelists are suspect.  
  • When a company or industry professes to provide a “better for you” product but its processes, ingredients or final product are inconsistent with what consumers believe to be “better for you,” Food eVangelists are suspect.   
  • When a company says it is responsive to its consumers but it fails to be transparent about the food it makes, Food eVangelists are suspect. 

And beyond suspect, Food eVangelists are empowered: Others must be told, must beware.   

Conclusions
No longer can food makers, farmers or ranchers isolate their actions from their words.  

This does not mean farmers, ranchers and food makers should forgo good food production practices or technologies because they are not currently embraced by all segments of the population. Rather, it means everyone in the business of making food should know when they have inconsistencies in what they say and what they do, and they should reconcile now before consumers ask the question.

The food industry has made significant strides toward improving transparency and access to information about how food is made, raised and grown. Beef Checkoff-funded state and national organizations are ensuring beef customers and consumers can learn how beef is produced. Another group that is leading the way in food transparency is the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, of which the Beef Checkoff is a founding member.  

Because transparency is the expectation, communications can’t be the final stage in the decision-making journey about how to raise food, what technologies will be developed and what practices will be used.  

To earn consumer trust, we have to approach food production from a 360-degree perspective:

  • Convene researchers, product developers, policy experts and communicators to pressure test a new business idea from all angles.
  • Evaluate an idea based on how it adds value to the company and to consumers or the world.
  • Consider whether your customers and consumers will see the value in your offering, and if not, re-evaluate the merit of the idea.
  • Engage in a conversation about the value, proactively, before you are asked.  
  • Ensure you are not telling different things to different people.  What you say to customers, influencers or consumers is visible for all to see. 

Only when we take these steps from the start – at the inception of a position, practice or technology – can we align our “say and do” and earn consumer trust.

Additional Resources

 

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Fall 2014, Research Findings

October 6, 2014