Foot and Mouth Disease and Crisis Communications Plans
by Season Solorio, Executive Director, Issues and Reputation Management, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff
As we discussed in another article this quarter, foot-and-mouth disease crisis planning and response is a major focus area for the livestock growers and stakeholders. This article will continue our discussion of the Secure Beef Supply Plan, focusing on the efforts of the Communications Working Group. In a separate article this month, you were introduced to foot and mouth disease (FMD), the Secure Food Supply Plans, the Secure Beef Supply Plan (SBS) and some of its Working Groups. Recall that the overarching goal of the SBS Plan is to limit disease spread and maintain continuity of business for beef producers and processors in the event of an FMD outbreak, so that a continuous supply of wholesome beef can ultimately reach the consumer. Also recall that although FMD is not a public health or food safety concern, it is the most contagious viral disease affecting cloven-hoofed livestock.
Should an FMD outbreak occur in the U.S, it will be critical to educate and inform consumers, media and other stakeholders about FMD. The SBS Communications Group is focused on delivering a unified and accurate message and is led by issues and crisis communication professionals from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. These highly qualified professionals have worked with the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team, a group that includes expert communicators from the pork, dairy, and sheep industries, for the past 15 years. This communication group was formed with the vision that livestock groups must all work together to prepare for, and potentially respond to, an FMD outbreak with a unified and consistent message.
Formation of the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team
In 2001, the United Kingdom (U.K.) experienced a devastating FMD outbreak that affected 10,000 farms and resulted in $15 billion in losses. The more recent 2007 U.K. outbreak, while smaller and more quickly contained, still cost $20 million per week to eradicate. The 2001 U.K. outbreak served as a wake-up call to many U.S. agriculture leaders, prompting them to join forces and create the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, the National Pork Board (NPB), The American Sheep Industry Association (ASIA) and Dairy Management, Inc. (DMI) joined together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) to drive communications preparedness efforts in the United States. Recognizing that a communications plan must also mirror the operational response plans, the group later expanded to also include operational experts from each of the species, such as veterinarians and animal welfare experts, from NCBA, the National Pork Producers Council, and the National Milk Producers Federation.
Since the beginning, the team’s goal has been to continually improve preparedness so the livestock industry can respond quickly in the event of an FMD outbreak. From a communication perspective, the group seeks to ensure consumer confidence in the safety of meat and milk through effective delivery of a coordinated, consistent and truthful message. Over the past decade, the Cross Species FMD Communications Team, working on behalf of livestock producers and their checkoff organizations, have worked together to:
- Create a unified crisis communication plan for the livestock industry,
- Collaborate on consumer-tested FMD messages which have been designed to maintain confidence in a safe and wholesome food supply, and
- Coordinate with government communications professionals at USDA APHIS who would be instrumental in communicating in the event of an FMD outbreak.
Based on this goal, the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team created a unified crisis response plan to help eliminate consumer confusion in the event of an outbreak. The plan will allow the livestock industries to:
- Speak with one voice,
- Take advantage of joint communication resources while eliminating duplication, and
- Provide readily available information to consumers via http://www.footandmouthdiseasesinfo.org.
Developing Key Messages and Resources
As part of this planning process, the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team has developed, tested and frequently updated consumer messages. In 2013, the team conducted additional consumer research to understand current awareness and knowledge levels regarding FMD and to assess consumers’ understanding and acceptance of various FMD messages. Specifically, the latest consumer insights found that:
- People think they’ve heard of FMD – but they most often have it confused with hand, foot and mouth disease, a common childhood disease. Consumers also tend to confuse FMD with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and other three-letter diseases.
- The internet and social media have increased the desire for information-gathering by consumers. People are interested in knowing more in the event of an outbreak and want more detail than previously anticipated, including the location of the outbreak, species involved, actions taken to contain the outbreak, assurance of the safety and government approval of vaccines (if vaccines are being used) , and what happens to the euthanized animals.
- People want reassurance, meaning that they want to know that the livestock industry, government and others involved in the outbreak are coordinating efforts and that there is a plan in place. In fact, being able to talk about how the government and livestock groups are working together to contain the disease is reassuring to consumers and likely to instill confidence.
- The number one most important message is reassuring consumers that their meat and milk are safe for them and their families to consume.
Updating and Testing the FMD Crisis Communications Plan
The team has also long recognized that any crisis plan must be fluid and constantly updated. Over the past several years, FMD disease exercises, or drills, have been held with key stakeholder audiences to prepare them for potential outbreaks. In 2011, DMI, working closely with the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team, held a series of three regional foot and mouth disease drills bringing together key stakeholders to practice working together on an FMD response. It was this series of drills that allowed the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team to test their plan together for the first time. The plan was updated, following this drill, to include more components including a social media response plan to make it more robust and to keep up with ever-changing communications mediums. In 2014, the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team hosted a government and trade association coordination exercise, as well as a farm broadcaster exercise, in order to bring these important players into the fold. Following these exercises, one of the key lessons learned was that the industry needed to think about how to respond to a potential “rumor” of FMD, without government confirmation. The industry was also able to gain further insight on how the government would internally and externally prioritize their communications efforts and how far up the chain, at the governmental response level, an FMD outbreak may go.
Recognizing that state partners are key stakeholders in any crisis communications response effort, the team hosted a tabletop exercise utilizing NPB’s impressive tabletop model so that attendees could visually understand how an FMD outbreak would play out in a small, rural agricultural town. Representatives from the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team also participated in state-level response drills held in Iowa and Kansas. Based on real-life scenarios, these state-focused exercises highlighted the need for continued education, coordination and preparation among national and state governments, animal health officials, organizations and other stakeholders. The team is working on identifying key organizations and contacts for dialogue on preparedness and response and is looking to enhance relationships with state organizations to provide support and resources for use during an outbreak.
Reaching Out to Key Stakeholders
Over the years, the team has also worked to communicate with other trade associations, such as those representing retail, foodservice, packers, processors and others who may have a direct point-of-contact with consumers. Through these efforts, the team has had one-on-one meetings, as well as larger meetings, in order to let these important stakeholder audiences know that there is a dedicated team of people working on foot and mouth disease. Like any other issue or crisis situation, these groups are not currently focused on an issue that we don’t have, but always appreciate that there is a group that they know they can call in a moment’s notice should they start to receive questions from their stakeholder audiences.
Where We Are Today
When the SBS Communications Working Group was formed in 2015, they received a full briefing on the Cross Species FMD Communications Team efforts and messages outlined above and quickly recognized the importance of leveraging what has already been done. The group suggested that the following steps should be taken in coordination with the Cross-Species FMD Communications Team:
- Create a greater understanding among stakeholders of the Joint Information Command (JIC) structure and how this would function in the event of an FMD response at the national, local and regional levels;
- Continue providing outreach and education to retail, foodservice and channel partners when opportunities arise;
- Work to provide more information to livestock producers, particularly updating them on ongoing communications efforts; and
- Further disseminate/leverage existing FMD Communications information to all sectors of the beef industry and consider developing a wallet card with "go to" info for crisis communications.
So what’s next? The Cross-species FMD Communication Team has identified 2016 as a year to extend FMD preparedness efforts to the state level in order to grow relationships and enhance response capabilities, forming a more comprehensive, integrated FMD crisis plan to align with various segments among industry and government stakeholder groups. Included in our plans this year are enhancing coordination across the industry (operations, food service, states, producers, etc.) to eliminate potential for confusion and understand resources and support functions available in an outbreak and leveraging assets to develop an integrated and informed digital response to be implemented in the event of an outbreak (most likely including an updated website, FootAndMouthDiseaseInfo.org
We all have an important role to play in communications efforts in the event of an FMD outbreak, so whether you’re a producer, a state partner, or an allied stakeholder, keep in mind that your communications around this complex topic should:
- Assure consumers of the safety of our meat and milk supply and what is being done to contain the outbreak,
- Reference trusted and credible organizations and sources,
- Provide resources for additional information, such as FootAndMouthDiseaseInfo.org, and
- Be personable and bring to life the stories of farmers and ranchers and the challenges, as well as the opportunities that they face on their operations daily
Remember that those of you reading this article are all members of what we refer to as the “beef community” – the broad community of dedicated people including, farmers, ranchers, feedyard operators, veterinarians, nutritionists, academics, state partners, retail foodservice operators and packers that it ultimately takes to bring beef from pasture to plate. Working together as a community, we’re able to plan for and protect against foreign animal diseases, such as FMD. And working together, as a community, we can help reassure consumers that their meat and milk supply is safe.
Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Issues Updates, Summer 2016
June 25, 2016