Posted Dec. 3 2015, 09:06:17 pm

Linda Locke

Senior Vice President, Partner

You are the manager for a well-regarded food manufacturer with quality products and terrific customer loyalty. You’ve earned the right to charge a premium price for your products because of high quality.

With your company’s track record, you are planning for a new round of product enhancements, to expand your retail footprint and expect that market share will grow. The financials are strong, and the future seems secure. Your organization’s reputation is thriving and you have good relationships with your customers, employees and the community. Life is good.


Then the phone rings.

It’s a reporter asking about rumors of people, including children, seniors and pregnant women, becoming sick after eating your products. Stories of them becoming ill are surfacing on Twitter and Facebook. This is the first time you’ve heard anything about this, and you can’t imagine it’s happening. So, what do you do next?

It is quite possible a very similar scenario is playing out right now in companies you know. No organization is immune, regardless of sector and whether the rumors are true. When it comes to health, the dread of preventable illness or death is understandably high. As people learn of such incidents from sources they consider credible (a trusted friend re-posts an alarming headline on Facebook, for example), fear and dread may erase years of customer loyalty.

People expect safety is a high priority to the manufacturer when it comes to food and drink. When we eat a meal, snack or treat we don’t expect to be swallowing a pathogen that could make us sick.

Humans make errors, because we’re human.

That being said, bacteria can be present in nearly any aspect of food manufacturing, and humans do make errors. A company that has earned a strong reputation can have unintentional errors that hurt consumers. If addressed quickly and fully explained, trust may be re-earned. If consumers find out – or suspect – that the company does not put their safety first, your reputation will become hard to rebuild.

How do you prepare? The organization will be judged on how it manages, whether the problem is the result of an internal lapse, an external source or simply human error. Stakeholders will react to what the situation reveals about how the company actually operates.

Companies cannot spin their way out of public view.

If your exposure to crisis situations is limited to TV sitcoms and movies, you may think the solution for an organization is to spin its way out. That’s a myth. What works in managing reputation is to earn and then maintain trust with the groups of people who are most important to you – employees, customers, suppliers and communities. That means the organization needs to consider its decisions from the perspective of stakeholders by consciously taking an outside-in view when considering perceptions and reactions.

A reputation manager should be prepared to ask and answer the following key questions:

1. Does management consciously put the safety of customers before or after profits?

An experienced reputation manager will fully engage on the issue of safety – understanding stakeholder expectations, advising the company of the importance, tracking company safety reports vs. competitors, and sharing company reports publicly.

Transparency is a key strategy to maintain trust – it’s what consumers, regulators, litigators and legislators expect. Outbreaks of pathogens are tracked and reported publicly by the Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/listeria/outbreaks/index.html). Hiding is not a strategy for protecting reputation – it’s a signal that management is not able to manage.

2. Has management lowered its safety standards without sufficient consideration of risk to customers?

When budgets are cut or significant changes are made to a safety program, the job of the reputation manager is to pose questions as to whether the changes might undermine trust in the company from the perspective of stakeholders.

A company with a resilient reputation will understand the issues that cause reputation risk and consider the impact of decisions that might reduce safety standards on its stakeholders. It will seek to answer the “Aunt Martha” question – would my Aunt Martha think we’re behaving ethically and honorably? Are we doing all we should to protect people who trusted us enough to buy our products? What would Aunt Martha say?

3. How quickly do consumers expect us to move to a total recall?

If consumer safety is at risk, sooner is better. Consumers expect that companies take health and safety seriously. An organization seen as slow in responding and taking action is signaling that it does not put consumers first. An organization with a resilient reputation issues recalls quickly, demonstrating by its actions where its priorities lie, and then recovers more quickly in terms of trust and esteem than those that hide, distort or mislead.

When a recall takes a long time, and consumers hear or see that additional people are being put at risk, trust is eroded. When consumers believe profits are put before people, their beliefs and behaviors will change. This is how a strong reputation is lost – even one built over many years. Here is a list of recent recalls in the U.S. from the past several years: http://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls/recent/#.

4. Are we fully prepared to manage through a brand and reputation disaster?

An organization in the food industry should identify the scenarios it is likely to face and understand the likely impact of each to organizational reputation. The more severe and more likely the scenario, the more important it is to act quickly.

Companies should identify scenarios that come from both internal and external sources.

Foodborne illnesses put a tremendous strain on the entire distribution system, and companies should have robust crisis management and recall plans in place. Had the spinach industry embraced transparency a few years ago it may have been able to limit the impact of the public perceptions about the risk of being affected by foodborne illness.

When the phone rings – or more likely, when the first tweet appears – the corporate reputation manager should know who to alert, when to convene, how quickly to respond, which channels of communication to use, and what language to use to let stakeholders know of the organization’s concern and dedication to resolving the situation.

Companies that understand the sources of reputation risk and have crisis management plans in place are more likely to respond quickly and decisively. Companies that engage in proactive reputation management are less likely to be surprised. They will know which decisions are likely to have a first- or second-order impact on reputation. They will be aware of stakeholder expectations. They will have a plan in place to respond. The management team will have thought through messaging and steps to respond. As a result, the company’s reputation and much loved brand is likely to return once the crisis is resolved.

For more information on reputation management, download this white paper on building a resilient reputation.

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